Outside, the afternoon sky was an ominous mix of ash, smoke and fire. In the chocolate-brown bedroom with the cream trim, walls dotted with photo frames and small mirrors, Sarah Barrett pondered what essentials to take on what she thought would be a few days’ evacuation from her Fort McMurray, Alta., townhouse. Shirts. Shorts. Jewellery. Estée Lauder foundation. As she ran downstairs, her mother reminded her to take the dress. “Because I’m not buying you another one,” she hollered at the 17-year-old, more wary than her daughter of the approaching menace.
Of course. How could Sarah forget? She had bought the grad dress in November, five hours south at West Edmonton Mall. She saw it on a shop mannequin, a strapless white gown with a hint of lilac. Sarah loved the large rhinestones and the ruffles that flowed with the skirt; everyone liked it on her, the clerk included. She ran up and grabbed the garment bag from her closet and headed out to her mom’s car, out into the black and the orange.
They faced gridlock heading down Abasand Hill as police sirens wailed uphill. The massive fire created its own weather, and crazy winds. “I remember seeing a pizza box flying, things flying all over buildings . . . [officers] knocking on people’s doors,” Sarah says. “I just started bawling because that’s how real it was.”
Everyone knows what happened next. More than 88,000 people escaped as parts of the city burned; they were evacuated for a month. A couple of thousand homes were destroyed, including Sarah’s. Much else was lost, too: a sense of security, of place, of routine. The wildfire disrupted oil-sands production, home sales, yoga classes, wedding plans. And when the Alberta premier announced city schools would stay closed until September, the disaster robbed Barrett and 85 other 12th-graders at Fort McMurray Composite High School of something else: graduation. There would be no June prom, no gowns, no marking of the moment where they stood, poised on the threshold of adulthood, thinking of the future. “Now that transition is very blurry,” says Kevin Bergen, the school’s principal. “Now the kids are having to try to figure out what does that look like.”
Sarah had her mind on grad more than most. She was one of six lead members of the grad planning committee, along with best friend Jenna Majeau, who grabbed her gown before fleeing; Hannah Thompson and Sarah Duffy, who packed their tiaras and headbands but left their dresses at the seamstress; Terrence Abalos, who never thought to take his suit; and Momin Syed, who couldn’t make it to his family’s condo before fleeing.
This is the story of the Fort McMurray fire, told through the class of 2016. Like the teens, Fort McMurray is also at a crossroads. The city is undergoing its own life-cycle shift—with oil prices down, it appears set to mature from ever-growing resource boomtown to a more stable (and sometimes declining) industrial plant and mine community. The teens grew up at the epicentre of Canadian job opportunity, but it’s a different city as they come of age. After the costly rebuild, what will remain? Fort Mac’s youth have a choice to make: help rebuild and commit to an uncertain future, or walk away from the ashes.
Fort McMurray Comp opened in 1977, a gleaming school in the heart of a town of 20,000 people. It’s now known as the crummy old south-side school, where commuters pass clutches of teen smokers gathered on the school lawn. Its wrong-side-of-the-tracks rap is somewhat unfair—diploma exam averages compare with the newer north-side schools—and officials have been fighting the reputation. Alberta Education planned a $28-million upgrade for the school, and Bergen, newly arrived last September from a city elementary school, launched crackdowns on smoking and cellphone use. Progress was made: there were 220 suspensions in the previous school year, and just 50 as of early May. And keep in mind: “problem school” is a relative term in Fort McMurray, a city so affluent that it leads the nation in median family income, and Comp’s principal qualifies for and lives in subsidized housing.
Dropout rates used to be a problem in oil sands country, where high-paying, low-skilled jobs were just a short drive north. But as major companies required diplomas in recent years, school completion rates inched closer to the provincial average. The lacklustre energy economy also tamped down demand for young workers and eased pressures on schools—after years of breakneck growth, enrolment flatlined this year.
Students on the grad committee were, of course, not the type to tune out or slack off. Momin, who lives in the city’s north end, was student council president (campaign hashtag: Momintum) and led community outreach efforts like a public BBQ and a carnival slated for mid-May. But like many others, he didn’t feel bound to Fort Mac, to which he moved in Grade 7 from Hamilton, Ont. “It’s a city that everyone hates to be in,” Momin says. Terrence also dreamed of a bigger town, maybe Calgary or Edmonton. “In Fort Mac, it’s the same thing over and over again, very tiring.”
The plan was to send them off with a bang on June 27. Monin, Sarah B., Sarah D., Hannah, Jenna and Terrence met every Wednesday at lunch. Jenna was making a grad video with students’ baby pictures. Hannah and Terrence would be emcees. They debated which songs to play for the various events: the morning’s diploma ceremony and the evening’s glitzy Grand March and dances. Leading contenders were tunes by Imagine Dragons, Wiz Khalifa, We’re All in This Together from High School Musical and Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), a graduation classic released before these Grade 12s were born. By early May, the grad committee met regularly after school to glue-gun together a cardboard gazebo and spiral archway for their “enchanted garden” theme.
Everything was lining up. They selected black gowns with yellow and white hoods for grad photos taken in March, and some posted the proofs as their Facebook profile images; they ordered rings; they found prom dates.
Sarah B. had the easiest choice—among the six, she was the only one dating someone: Garrett Hayward, captain of the boys’ volleyball team (she led the girls’ squad).
At their favourite restaurant in December, they played hangman on the kraft-paper tablecloth. The four-letter word stumped her, so Garrett filled in the blanks: G-R-A-D.
Momin devised a similarly shy way to pop the question in April. He came back from a Starbucks run with Sarah D.’s favourite drink—vanilla-bean frappuccino with two pumps of raspberry syrup—in a sleeve. Instead of a name, he’d asked the barista to write “Prom?” Friends giggled as Sarah accepted. “It’s just only as friends, anyway,” she explains.
Momin, who aspired to be a physician, had secured an offer to study science at the University of Lethbridge, a nine-hour drive away. Sarah wanted to be a dentist and had been accepted at the University of Alberta, but wasn’t quite ready to move to Edmonton. She decided she would stay at the local college, Keyano, for two years, then transfer south. She’d have company: Terrence and Hannah both wanted to be nurses, Jenna hoped to be a teacher and Sarah B. dreamed of delivering babies. All planned to start higher learning at the local college.
On the morning of May 3, sun glittered through a cloudless sky. The wildfire had begun two days earlier, and Sarah D.’s neighbourhood was under mandatory overnight evacuation orders, but Bergen said in morning announcements the smoke was receding. Sarah gave her date Momin a fabric swatch from her grad dress to make a handkerchief for his suit. He excitedly stored it in his knapsack’s front pouch. He’d get it done the next day.
The six students had English together, and took turns reading Hamlet aloud. At lunch, Sarah and Momin went with others to buy ice cream and sit in a riverside park. The noontime sky was calm, bristol-board blue.
In afternoon science class, phones started binging with images of flaming woods around Abasand, Sarah B.’s neighbourhood. (Principal Bergen’s ban on social media use during class was, suddenly, out the window.) Students checked outside and ran back to report the sky had reddened. Parents texted: we’re coming to pick you up.
As most others fled Comp, and as the principal was on the roof hosing it down, Momin and his younger sister were ushered into the library with students waiting for rides. Then, the cafeteria. When the pair finally ran out to a friend’s car, the smoke was so intense they covered their noses and mouths, bringing on instant headaches.
A whole city of vehicles was rushing home or rushing out. Momin spent two hours trying to travel less than two kilometres to his dad’s office, and eventually stopped in a Wal-Mart parking lot. He ran the last six blocks. “It got to a point where I said, ‘We’re either gonna die in this car or we’re gonna get to safety,’ ” he says. By the time his family hit the road, the mandatory evacuation orders had spread citywide. He didn’t have time to stop at home and pick anything up.
Sarah D. had little packing to do. Her bags were still mostly packed from a one-night evacuation earlier in the week, when police came to her neighbourhood with megaphones. Along with the necessities, she brought grad jewellery; a sparkly crystal flower headband, matching earrings and a bracelet. Her grad dress was at the Little Hart seamstress shop downtown.
The Duffys left home and hit more crawling congestion. The fire was getting closer. Nobody was moving. “I actually panicked so much that I called 911,” Sarah says.
Momin wound up at BlackSand Executive Lodge, a hotel-style work camp just north of the city. His family of five slept in a room with a single bed. In the morning, as he fished through his knapsack, his fingers felt fabric. It was the blue chiffon from Sarah’s grad dress.
He knew he should keep the swatch, in case Sarah’s dress burned and she needed to replace it. He felt his face flush with dread. “I knew from that moment that we were probably not going to have a graduation party,” Momin says, “and I wouldn’t be able to finish the remainder of the high school year as a normal student.”
The morning after, Sarah B.’s family feared the worst. Emergency crews had reported substantial damage in her neighbourhood. When the smoke cleared, somebody drove up Abasand Hill and posted a Facebook video. Beyond some burned-down homes, Sarah could make out the French school, still standing. Beyond École Boréal, nothing was standing. “That’s where my house originally was,” she says. “It didn’t sink in, like it wasn’t real.”
Gradually, it did. That recently repainted bedroom, gone. Her vacation photos surrounding her bedroom mirror, dust. Her queen bed and comforter with grey, white and hints of red. There were so many items she wished she had taken, so many memories. The other five grad-committee leaders had homes to go back to, farther from the flames. “I’m really happy for them, because I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy to have them lose something so important to them,” she says.
Sarah found solace in the truly important things—parents and siblings she shared hotel rooms with throughout May, as well as her best friend, Jenna, and her boyfriend, out on Vancouver Island with his family. “I would not let my phone die because they were so good at keeping me calm,” she says. Jenna recalls they kept telling each other: stay safe, love you, see you soon.
While her friends were in Edmonton, Hannah was five hours northwest at her grandma’s farm in Berwyn, Alta., population 526. No Starbucks, no friends, and most unsettlingly, no dad. Because of her father’s job as a senior firefighter, classmates trusted Hannah to know what was going on the day fire breached the city. The last thing Hannah had said to Sarah in class was a quiet, “Yes, you should get home right away.” The last time she saw her dad, Gord Thompson, acting fire battalion chief, he was on their back lawn. He gave her a soot-covered hug and said they should go; the flames were approaching. They left him behind to defend the neighbourhood.
The night after the Thompsons reached Berwyn, a radio host reported on Facebook that fire had taken Gregoire Lake Estates, their rural enclave just south of Fort McMurray. Hannah went to bed sure her home was destroyed; her mother Karen went to sleep with her phone on her chest, hoping for an update. By morning, the broadcaster apologized for the bad intelligence; Thompson and his small crew were winning. “The beast” kept pushing their guard line back: flames consumed the provincial campground, crossed the highway, ate the bottoms of power poles. “This was our last line of defence here . . . and this is where we finally stopped it,” Thompson would say weeks later, in a stand of burned trees a few hundred metres from his neighbourhood. His crew’s trucks, hoses and bulldozers were aided by a flamethrowing helicopter that blasted dry treetops near the lake, which sucked oxygen and the wildfire toward it, letting the fighters push the fire to the water and away from homes.
He defended Gregoire Lake Estates for several more days, using above-ground pools for extra water and siphoning gas to fuel his trucks. Then he joined the multi-city crew protecting Fort McMurray from flare-ups and spot fires, and saw equipment in action he’d normally see at trade shows: eight-wheel rigs designed for saving burning airplanes, and the Hydrosaurus—the monster truck of water tankers, with a tank-like turret. Hannah’s dad wouldn’t see his family in Berwyn for the whole month of May.
Having spent a near-sleepless night at an evacuation centre outside Fort Mac, principal Bergen had a long, drowsy drive to his friend’s Edmonton-area house. “You look like you’ve been through a battle,” the principal was told. At 10 p.m., a teacher texted Bergen, saying she needed to talk to him. Emily Ryan, a Grade 9 Comp student, and her older cousin had been killed in a head-on collision with a lumber truck on the highway south of Anzac, just outside of Fort McMurray. “Oh god, no. Seriously?” he replied. As he struggled to process this tragedy atop a tragedy, he remembered: he’d passed by that same truck earlier that day. Bergen, too, had been so exhausted he risked drifting into oncoming traffic, as Ryan’s driving companion had done. It could have been him, the principal thought. Instead, it was one of his 15-year-old students.
Hearing this news clobbered fellow students. “It was the only thing that punched its way through the numbness that I still have,” Hannah says. Jenna was Ryan’s second cousin. “Something triggers in your brain and tells you you need to forget this.”
The principal spent much of May touring Edmonton-area schools, connecting with Comp students and others from Fort Mac. Every other day, he visited West Edmonton Mall, where he’d inevitably run into familiar teens. Sarah B. spent a lot of time at Canada’s ultimate megamall, on an insurance-funded spree to replenish her wardrobe, a small silver lining to the tragedy.
“I mean, I miss my old wardrobe because there are certain pieces I couldn’t buy back, but it was mostly fun.”
Her family’s quest for a new home began soon after they determined they were homeless. Her dad drives oil-sands trucks at Suncor and her mom is a supermarket assistant manager; they’ve lived in Fort Mac since Sarah was in kindergarten, though they were renting in Abasand. The economy’s plunge had left more vacancies than in the Fort McMoney days, but there was a huge demand for available addresses. Sarah’s mom contacted more than a dozen places, but nothing worked out. The duplex they eventually found is a bit smaller, and Sarah’s new bedroom is in the basement.
“I’m one for big kitchens, and this one isn’t exactly what I would have liked, but I don’t really think it’s a time to be picky,” says Sarah.
Students with homes still standing began to prepare to return in late May. The government’s staged re-entry to Fort McMurray would start with areas like Hannah’s and Jenna’s on June 1, then Sarah D.’s and Sarah B.’s on June 3. On the 9 1/2-hour drive from Berwyn, the Thompsons passed Slave Lake, where a 2011 wildfire wiped out a third of the town. They glimpsed hectares of burned timber, houses still being rebuilt and water bombers putting out current wildfires. “This is what we’re going home to,” Hannah’s mother remarked, and broke down a little. “We’re trying to console Mom, trying to let her know to keep driving,” says Hannah. “We’re not escaping this time,” she told her mother. “We’re going home.”
As the Thompsons approached Gregoire Lake Estates, they saw a new clearing, as wide as a football field, in front of their homes. “You could never see the lake from the highway, with all the trees there. I didn’t even know where I was,” Hannah recalls. But in the driveway was a familiar sight: Dad, working on his truck. Hannah got out before the car was in park and soon the family was a four-person tangle of tears and joy.
Jenna was issued a wristband to re-enter Fort McMurray a few days early, but that meant she had to work for the privilege. Her mother, Colleen Majeau, had to reopen the supermarket, where she was an assistant manager and Jenna was a cashier. Majeau locked up the supermarket on the day Fort McMurray was evacuated, but she returned to smashed doors and empty shelves. First responders, emboldened by emergency rules, had helped themselves to the supermarket’s granola bars, fruit, water, headache pills and wipes. Restoration contractors were tossing food that wasn’t canned into large waste bins in the parking lot.
But the cash Majeau left in the tills May 3 remained untouched. Four weeks later, she and Jenna counted the bills and coins; it all balanced. They opened on re-entry Wednesday, with most shelves replenished but several still barren. Business was slow that day as residents trickled back. When a shopper couldn’t cover her $300 bill, a bank employee in line behind her stepped in to do so.
Jenna loved being back in her own bed after weeks crammed into her uncle’s house with as many as 13 other relatives. When she looked around her bedroom, she rethought what she had packed for the evacuation. “The only thing that mattered to me at the time was my grad dress, but I could have taken family photos.”
Being at home was amazing, and they didn’t even have to throw out their fridge, like many families whose houses lost power during their exile. The city itself, though—all the images on Facebook couldn’t prepare her. Coming into town, trees looked like black sticks to Jenna, who was born in Fort Mac. A campfire-like smell pervaded certain areas. She could hardly bear to look up at the blackened Abasand Hill, where Sarah B.’s townhouse had stood. There were too many memories of hanging out there, baking cupcakes and playing video games with Sarah’s younger brother. The Barretts were like a second family.
They had seen each other a few times during the evacuation month in Edmonton, but it couldn’t compare to reuniting in Fort McMurray. They gave each other a big hug when Sarah first stopped by the supermarket; then Sarah returned to work there as well. Because some supermarket employees didn’t come back, they’re both working full-time, earning far more than they would in a normal June. There aren’t many places to spend that money, with movie theatres and favourite restaurants still closed. So they hang out at Jenna’s, in the hot tub or watching TV. For someone who lost everything, her friend seems to be handling it well, Jenna says.
Her friend might be grateful for what she does have, but there’s still more grieving to go. Six weeks after Sarah lost her house, her family donned white suits and masks to inspect the remains of their home on Athabasca Avenue. All the 17-year-old could find was a scented candle from her nightstand, three dishes from a baking set and half a mug her boyfriend got her for Christmas. She couldn’t find the other half.
Jenna, who had accompanied her friend, asked if Sarah was okay. She wasn’t. “I couldn’t look her in the eyes, because I knew I would break down,” Sarah says.
At least now she knows what survived and what didn’t. She did. Her boyfriend did. And her relationship with Jenna was only stronger.
Along with the gusher of donations to the Canadian Red Cross, into Alberta flowed crinoline, chiffon and a rainbow array of open-backed dresses with cap sleeves. Many Canadians who mourned Fort McMurray’s losses also felt for its graduating students.
An Edmonton-area recreation center became a display room for around 4,000 outfits donated by people from Corner Brook, N.L., to Port Alberni, B.C., to Inuvik, N.W.T.—far more dresses than there are grad students in Fort McMurray.
The Comp teens on the committee didn’t need the charity. Momin bought a backup suit while in Edmonton, but his original one survived, and Hannah and Sarah D. retrieved their dresses from the seamstress with only a bit of smokiness, nothing some dryer sheets couldn’t fix. They will get their diploma ceremony, but it will be one big public celebration for all the public schools in the district on Aug. 27. It means some of their decorations and music choices won’t get used, and Hannah doubts she’ll be emceeing with Terrence. “I’m super disappointed I don’t get to do that now that it’s a city thing,” she says.
But she’s happy they’ll still mark the occasion, and that she’s got her dress back. The Fort McMurray seamstress lost her own home to fire, but upon her return, she rescued the dresses trapped in her downtown shop. When she arrived June 1, the place reeked—downstairs, the smell of dead fish and rotting food was emanating from a pet store. She returned with a respirator and spirited the garments to a friend’s garage. Hannah’s garment bag was oil-splotched, but her pink gown was fine; Sarah’s sapphire dress, retrieved from the same shop, briefly smelled of pet bedding chips, but some Bounce did the trick. Momin’s blue hankie will coordinate perfectly.
Officials hope bigger can be better: maybe with a city-wide prom, they can attract a major musical act and arrange flights home for evacuees who haven’t returned. For those who make it back for August grad, the hoopla will have to consider mental-health needs, and sensitively address “that sadness and that mourning,” principal Bergen says.
Related: The great escape from Fort McMurray
Grad is a self-absorbed, self-important event, and that’s a necessary thing: Bergen points out these adolescents are marking the end of their 12-year scholastic journey, reflecting on their accomplishments and indulging their future dreams. In the fire’s wake, those reflections share space with trauma, fear for the future and worries about parents’ employability. “Instead of it being focused on them as a spotlight, it’s been a floodlight, lighting up the entire life of the community,” Bergen says.
The crisis’s harsh light made students rethink their priorities. The grad-committee students are hanging on to their career ambitions—as doctors, nurses, dentists or teachers. But so much else has changed.
The city’s slumping economy had already jolted them. Many friends’ parents had lost their jobs and, even before the fire, classmates who were born in Fort Mac had to move to Calgary or Edmonton—the oil sands’ economic evacuees. When the wildfire threatened oil-sands facilities and work camps (it went on to destroy the camp where Momin sought refuge), it foretold greater misery for their city.
But the six grad-committee students are staying. They will start their degrees at Keyano, next door to their high school, in the fall. Momin turned down that University of Lethbridge offer for a chance to stay and watch the city rebuild and help in any way he can, even though his parents had been fully supportive of him moving away. “I can’t bear staying away from my family, especially after something like this happened,” Momin says. “Because life is fragile, life is priceless, and you’ll never know when it’s going to hit you hard.”
Keyano is reportedly bracing for higher enrolment this fall. Many students are ditching opportunities to move to Edmonton or elsewhere.
“I thought it was just a dusty rundown place I wanted to get out of, but now I see it in a new light,” Hannah says. She appreciates the small beauties revealed where the trees once stood, and how much community togetherness poked out. “It all gives it a sense of home.”
It’s unclear whether the prosperous days that lured their parents will return, but such uncertainty misted the Fort Mac air long before the wildfire. After the fire, almost everything is unknown.
The one sure thing? For now, this is where they belong.