Wildfires not enough to stop Fort McMurray Four

Four high school students from Fort McMurray were supposed to come to McGill as finalists in the Canada-Wide Science Fair but the wildfire that has devastated their city has jeopardized their participation. Find out how you can help.
From left to right: Mackenzie Guy, Dhrumil Shah, Corey Conroy (Canada Youth Science), Dhvani Patel and Linda Guo
From left to right: Mackenzie Guy, Dhrumil Shah, Corey Conroy (Canada Youth Science), Dhvani Patel and Linda Guo

By Neale McDevitt

From May 14 – 21, McGill will be hosting the 55th annual Canada-Wide Science Festival (CWSF). The weeklong event will gather together 500 of the country’s top young scientists to compete for nearly $1 million in prizes, scholarships and science experiences. 

Like their fellow CWSF finalists, high school students Dhvani Patel, Mackenzie Guy, Linda Guo and Dhrumil Shah are smart, curious, ambitious and passionate about science. What sets them apart however, is the road they took to get here – a road that was choked with smoke and, in some cases, flanked on either side by fire.

Patel, Guy, Guo and Shah are residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, where raging wildfires have cut a huge swath of destruction and forced the evacuation of all the city’s 80,000 residents. Like most citizens of the northeastern Albertan town, the four high schoolers had little time to gather personal belongings before fleeing their homes.

Living in temporary accommodations in Edmonton, Vermilion and Calgary, the students face an immediate future fraught with uncertainty – including whether or not they can attend the CWSF.

“These students are displaced from their homes for a significant period of time with limited possessions,” said Corey Conroy, Manager, Participant Experience, Youth Science Canada, the organization that runs CWSF. “Some were fortunate to have been able to grab their prototypes [for the CWSF]. But others did not enough time or were not able to grab their prototypes, their laptops or other project materials. Some had a very short period of time to evacuate as their neighbourhoods were imminently threatened by fire.”

While steps are being taken to help the Fort McMurray Four fulfill their goal and attend the CWSF – an honour they earned by excelling at the recent regional competition, Conroy noted that immediate funds are needed to help them with any “costs, clothing and supplies needed to attend the Fair and recover from being displaced.

“It is important for these students to still be able to participate because they have worked very hard on their projects and have come up with some really amazing science. It’d be a shame if they weren’t able to attend,” said Conroy. “There is also something to be said for being a good neighbour and taking care of one another. Attending the Fair would start to show that their lives are returning back to normal and would be a break from the disaster and feeling displaced.”

People can donate online. Click the link “Directly donate to Youth Science Canada” and select a donation amount that is specifically identified for the Fort McMurray Fund. 

The McGill Reporter managed to contact three of the four Fort McMurray students via email. Here are their stories.


Like all the citizens of Fort McMurray, 13-year-old Mackenzie Guy will remember May 2016 for the rest of her life.

Guy was sitting in math class at Ecole McTavish Junior High School when the PA system crackled to life to tell people to make their way to the in-school shelter immediately. “Everyone looked at each other because we had never heard that announcement before,” said Guy via an email interview.

Guy texted her mother, who was already en route to pick her up. “The sky was black with smoke with a tint of orange,” said Guy. “We made it home to a cloud of smoke rolling into our cul-de-sac.”

Large flames and heavy smoke surrounded congested Highway 63 South leading out of Fort McMurray. / Photo: DarrenRD (Wikimedia Commons)
Large flames and heavy smoke surrounded congested Highway 63 South leading out of Fort McMurray. / Photo: DarrenRD (Wikimedia Commons)

Back home, the family grabbed whatever they could and, with “ash falling like snowflakes,” they hit the road again – this time to get out of the city as quickly as possible.

But a speedy exit would prove problematic as “cars were packed like sardines in the four lanes heading north. You could see cars had been abandoned on the sides and middle of the highway and people trying to get rides… I saw people walking down the sidewalk pulling luggage behind them,” said Guy. “I said to myself this is like the Walking Dead. It’s the apocalypse.”

When they finally got moving, heading North away from the flames, Guy remembers looking in the rearview mirror and seeing “a winding stream of headlights, that didn’t seem to end.

“I asked my mom if she had grabbed everything that was important [when evacuating the house],” Guy said. “She took my hand and squeezed it saying ‘Everything that is precious to me made it out.’”

Hell on Earth

Linda Guo, a 17-year-old student at Westwood Community High School, has similar frightening recollections of her family’s evacuation.

“I wish I could describe the way the heat blistered your face when you drove past the burning trees, watching buildings coming down, and being afraid to turn on the air conditioning because there is no fuel left in the city, or any city close by. We must have passed at least a hundred cars, just thrown into the ditch. They were out of gas,” she said in an email. “The radio stations were down. No one knew anything. They skyline was a mass of smoke and fire… We stopped on the side of the road and said, ‘What do we do? What now?’

“We had to drive through the burning city to escape. The fire was so close on either side of the road that I could touch it if I stretched my hand out the window. When I left, I expected that it would be the last time I saw the city,” said Guo. “Take your depiction of hell. That is what it was like.”

Ash falling from the sky

Dhvani Patel remembers his evacuation as being “extremely hectic,” with traffic that was “absolutely tremendous… A few people were also not co-operative and panicked. I saw multiple cars driving recklessly on the sidewalks and on the middle of roads. You could see plumes of smoke, which was scary, and it was raining ash. Luckily, my whole family got out safely.”

Ironically, Patel’s science project involves developing a ‘smart’ drone that would be ideal for disaster zones like the one he just fled. He’s hoping that he can make it to the CWSF because, apart from the wonderful opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with other like-minded budding scientists, the Fair represents “a week where I can stop thinking about the fire and all the new obstacles.”

Fort McMurray’s feel-good story

Immediately following the evacuation from Fort McMurray, Mackenzie Guy was ambivalent about attending the CWSF. “I was in shock when my name was announced at the regional science fair to be one of four students representing Fort McMurray at the Canada Wide Science Fair in Montreal. When it finally sank in I was extremely excited and couldn’t wait to get there,” she said. “When Fort McMurray was devastated by this terrible fire my excitement really wasn’t there anymore and I wasn’t sure that going to Montreal was the right thing to do.”

Having already relocated twice, first to Edmonton and then to Vermilion, Guy and her family have met a lot of people. “One thing that everyone has said is ‘you have to go [to the CWSF], don’t let this stop you from going.’

“This may be a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to experience this event, and meet others who are as enthusiastic about science as I am,” said Guy. “Sometimes the things we cannot change end up changing us and I am hoping that we [the Fort McMurray Four] are the ray of sunshine, the rainbow, and a feel-good story that can help the people of Fort McMurray get through this devastating time.”

People can donate online. Click the link “Directly donate to Youth Science Canada” and select a donation amount that is specifically identified for the Fort McMurray Fund. 


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Jill Rothberg
8 years ago

Thank you to the McGill Reporter for sharing this link. I have just donated and encourage my fellow McGill employees to donate what they can to these brave young scholars.