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Editorial: Fort McMurray wildfire turns teachers into heroes

May 10, 2016 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

I’m writing this editorial from ­Edmonton on Thursday, May 5.

It’s a cooler day than it has been lately, but it is also windier. With the winds comes a dull gray haze over the city and the pungent — almost sweet — smell of smoke. The cool weather is a relief for firefighters and the tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in Alberta’s northernmost city.  The winds are not.

With the winds and the smell of smoke also arrive the evacuees and their harrowing tales of escape.

The day after fleeing the Fort McMurray fires, ATA Local 48 president Nancy Ball shuffled listlessly into my office at Barnett House. Her eyes were red and glossy. Not the typical eyes of crying. There was a softness to them that suggested these eyes were tired — tired from a lack of sleep and too tired to shed more tears.

Nancy arrived in Edmonton at about 4 a.m. on Wednesday. A central ­office–based teacher, her day changed dramatically Tuesday afternoon when she arrived with associate superintendent Brenda Sautner at Greely Road/Fort McMurray Islamic School for a school visit. A billowing cloud of smoke indicated that they would need to start evacuating the students immediately. Buses were called in and parents were notified.

About 30 students had to be evacuated by bus before their parents were able to pick them up at the school. Nancy and Brenda followed the bus on its trip — first in an attempt to get to the board office, then out to a hotel by the airport, a first attempt to get out of the city to Anzac, a return to the hotel and finally again out of town. It was nearly midnight before the bus arrived in Anzac.

Now in Edmonton, Nancy has only the clothes on her back. She’s awaiting the return of her husband who had to evacuate north of Fort McMurray — he has some more of their belongings, but not much. Some teachers were unable to go home before fleeing with students. Some cars were left at the schools as teachers accompanied students on the buses.

The incredible professionalism, ­humanity and commitment of teachers was clearly on display. Nancy told me about one first-year teacher who knew full well that his apartment had burned down, yet he stayed strong and stayed with his students, focusing on trying to keep them calm.

“Here we have staff that are experiencing a nightmare, yet are keeping it together for the sake of the kids,” said Ball. “Through tragedy, our strengths come through, and that has been evidenced for me throughout this experience.”

On Tuesday night, many of the ­Islamic school parents were waiting in ­Anzac to pick up their children when the bus arrived, but a few students would remain separated from their parents overnight. The principal stayed with the students through the night and with one student even into the next day.

In loco parentis.

Another principal, Merri Rae Mitsopoulos, still today has been unable to reunite two students with their parents and will be taking them to Edmonton. These extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary actions, and I am in awe of — although not totally surprised by — the stories of these dedicated heroes.

I can’t imagine how difficult the situation is for these students to be apart from their parents for multiple days in the midst of a disaster. Thankfully they have a familiar and compassionate adult to provide some level of reassurance and stability.

The humanity, support and compassion is not limited to the teaching profession. It has been evidenced by Albertans throughout this event. ­Everyone does what they can and what is necessary, in their own way, whether large or small.

The stories of the evacuees are gut-wrenching. The stories of humanity are uplifting.

The tough times are far from over, so let’s continue to reach out to our friends, colleagues and neighbours and make sure they feel supported in the weeks and months to come. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at

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