Fort McMurray fire means learning the hard way

New disaster relief fund could help hundreds of UAlberta students return to their studies.


The destruction from the fire in Fort McMurray could threaten the studies of about 500 current and prospective students at the University of Alberta. But the university and its alumni have come together to help these students by creating a new Disaster Relief Bursary, raising more than $12,000 in just four days.

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U of A students who could benefit from the new bursary include Imad Bazzi. A couple weeks before the fire, the 20-year-old had finished his second year of civil engineering. One day before the fire, he started an eight-month co-op placement back home in Fort McMurray.

The next day, his family home, his entire savings—and possibly his co-op—were gone.

It was Tuesday, May 3, 2016, and Bazzi had returned from lunch on his second day of work. In the car, Bazzi heard the mandatory evacuation order over the radio. With no time to spare, he filled up with gas, bought some bottled water and food, then searched for his brother, sister and mother.

Along with almost 90,000 other people—the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history—the family took a bumper-to-bumper drive north. After spending the night at a work camp, they headed back south to Edmonton. On the way, Bazzi stopped at a police barricade and appealed to police to let him see the street where he lived. When Bazzi and the officer arrived, all they saw were water pipes and the legs of some lawn furniture.

“All the houses were gone,” Bazzi said. “The officer was, like, ‘Is this where you live?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘I’m sorry, man.’”


Listen as UAlberta engineering student Imad Bazzi talks about the evacuation from Fort McMurray—and his long road back.

As the family drove south, his sister and mother sobbing in the backseat, it dawned on Bazzi what he’d lost: a laptop with all his school files; quite possibly the family cat, Oliver; and $5,000 cash he was saving to pay student debt.

“This disaster, I wouldn’t want this to be a reason I don’t go back to school.”

Bazzi is one of some 500 current and prospective U of A students from Fort McMurray who now face uncertain futures. Like Bazzi, some students have lost their jobs and have to look elsewhere to pay for tuition and living expenses.

“We’re seeing students and families who no longer have the financial resources they expected, and who have lost both job prospects and resources such as textbooks and computers,” says Lisa Collins, university registrar and vice-provost. “This new bursary will provide assistance so students and prospective students can continue, or start, their studies.”

The University of Alberta Disaster Relief Bursary is open to undergraduate and graduate students and does not need to be repaid. It is based on financial need due to loss or unforeseen costs related to a natural disaster.

The bursary will be distributed by Student Financial Support within the Office of the Registrar. It will provide additional financial support in conjunction with established bursary programs at the university.

You can help. Give to the University of Alberta Disaster Relief Bursary and help students get their studies back on track.