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Fort McMurray Students Return Home For Graduation

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EDMONTON — Brynne Wood tries on her sparkly, champagne-coloured princess gown and smells a hint of smoke.

The dress was left hanging in an alterations shop in downtown Fort McMurray when a huge wildfire spread into the northern Alberta city in May.

A dry cleaner did the best it could to get the stench out, says Wood, who is excited to be finally walking across the stage this weekend to get her diploma.

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Brynne Wood is returning to her hometown of Fort McMurray for high school graduation. (Photo: Codie McLachlan/CP)

Four months after the fire forced more than 80,000 residents to flee and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings, students in Fort McMurray are preparing to head back for another year of classes.

And many of those who were in Grade 12, and had their final exams waived because of the evacuation, are going back to school to say goodbye.

"I didn't think we'd have grad,'' says Wood, 18, who has since moved to Edmonton where she'll be starting university in two weeks.

Wood returned to her hometown once this summer and was shocked to see several blackened neighbourhoods. Her rental home was left standing among levelled houses.

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Houses and vehicles destroyed by wildfire are seen in the Timberlea neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alta. (Photo: Bloomberg via Getty)

She had been sitting in social studies class when a voice over the loudspeaker at Westwood Community High School advised everyone to leave because of the fire. She's looking forward to seeing her classmates again for a celebration.

"It will be nice to talk to everyone and know that they're safe.''

Her boyfriend, Cole Graham, pulling on a newly rented suit, says he wants to hear what his friends have been up to in the last four months. He has also moved to Edmonton and says it's worth the four-hour drive back to Fort McMurray for the party.

"We didn't spend 12 years not to have one.''

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Brynne Wood adjusts Cole Graham's necktie. The couple are returning home to Fort McMurray to attend their high school graduation. (Photo: Codie McLachlan/CP)

School officials anticipate most of the city's 600 graduates are planning to attend graduation — both a morning convocation and an evening prom — on Friday for Catholic students and Saturday for those in the public system.

But there are those who have moved elsewhere and those who are too busy settling into dorms and readying for post-secondary classes. Some took part in graduation ceremonies in other cities in June.

Doug Nicholls, superintendent with the Fort McMurray Public School District, says other cities offered to hold an earlier graduation for all displaced students.

"But we felt it was very important for our students and the community at large to have the event right here.''

"We didn't spend 12 years not to have one.''

Soon after the fire, volunteers collected donated dresses and suits for grads who lost their fancy duds in the flames. Money also came in to help pay for this weekend's ceremonies, since there wasn't a lot of time for students to do fundraising, Nicholls says.

He has heard that about 10 to 15 per cent of residents don't plan to return to Fort McMurray this year. That will translate into an approximate five per cent drop in student enrolment when schools open Sept. 6, he says.

He's also had to hire about 15 new staff in the division. Some have resigned, having resettled elsewhere, and others are taking a year's leave.

Four schools in the city — one public, one francophone and two Catholic — are to remain closed until next fall for cleaning and renovations. Other schools are making room for those students, in some cases with additional portable classrooms.

More counsellors are being made available to students, staff and parents to help them adjust to life in the city again, says Nicholls.

"We will have to think of everything from what happens when students want to tell their stories (to) when the first fire drill is held for the year.''

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Brynne Wood puts on a necklace as part of her graduation outfit. (Photo: Codie McLachlan/CP)

But getting the schools open again — with concerts, clubs and sports teams — should help the whole community regain some normalcy, Nicholls says.

The superintendent of Fort McMurray Catholic Schools, George McGuigan, says some students recently took a good first step by returning to schools to retrieve belongings they left behind during the evacuation. He has seen lots of hugs in hallways.

"That's going to go a long way for us when we do start the first day of school.''

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