Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes an aerial survey of the Fort McMurray wildfires with Chad Morrison (left), wildfire compliance and investigations manager, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
Photo by The Canadian Press/Jason Franson
Millions of people in Canada and around the world watched in dread in May as a wildfire forced more than 80,000 northern Albertans to flee their homes as flames licked the side of the only road to safety.
During the evacuation, the largest in Alberta’s history, many ordinary people took extraordinary action — including U of A alumni.
When Fort McMurray, Alta., was ordered evacuated on May 3, pharmacist Dave Hill, ’78 BSc(Pharm), stayed behind to fill life-saving prescriptions for evacuees and essential service workers, according to media reports. He was escorted into town by emergency crews to work in 20-minute windows, leaving May 7 when the air quality became too dangerous.
Lisa Hilsenteger, ’88 BEd, principal of Father Turcotte School, ended up caring for 15 children whose parents couldn’t reach them in the chaos of the evacuation. Principal Merrie-Rae Mitsopoulos, ’93 BEd, was left with five students from K.A. Clark School to evacuate, according to media reports, looking after one student for nearly four days until he was reunited with his mother.
The province’s senior wildfire manager, Chad Morrison, ’06 BSc(Forest), kept Albertans updated, answering questions at daily news briefings alongside Premier Rachel Notley, ’87 BA(Hons). Other forestry grads, including Tyler Schneider, a wildland firefighter who graduated this spring, spent long days on the ground battling flames and hot spots.
As evacuees streamed south, the university offered help. Lister Centre and St. Joseph’s College residences welcomed more than 1,000 evacuees, with staff, faculty and volunteers devoting thousands of hours to prepare rooms, gather supplies, serve meals and co-ordinate the massive effort to help evacuees until they could begin returning home June 1. (As of July 5, about 100 people were still staying at Lister.) A campus barbecue in Quad raised $16,435 for the Red Cross and collected 90 boxes of donations for the food bank and emergency relief services.
The university and its alumni quickly established the Disaster Relief Bursary, raising more than $18,000 by mid-July to ensure the studies of as many as 500 current and prospective students from Fort McMurray wouldn’t be interrupted.
The fire, which consumed more than 2,400 structures and nearly 600,000 hectares of forest, was finally declared under control July 5, with an estimated $3.58 billion in insured losses.