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Fort McMurray teachers thankful for prayers after trial by fire

When Christian young people leave home for new jobs or adventures after graduation, they go with the prayers of family and supporters in their hearts, lifting their spirits to meet the challenges of the future.

Those prayers for strength, wisdom and protection were answered on May 3, 2016 for Erica and Ronald Vanden Pol, teachers at Fort McMurray Christian School. The young couple was part of a mass evacuation of the 80,000 residents of this northern Alberta city that was in danger of being consumed by a rapidly advancing forest fire. They arrived safely in Edmonton in the wee hours of the morning after an exhausting eight-hour drive, a trip that usually takes less than five hours.

They were among the last to leave the school in the late afternoon, volunteering to stay until the last students had been safely restored to their parents. Unlike most of the teachers at the 200-student school, the Vanden Pols didn’t have to leave early to connect with other family. With Erica being eight months pregnant, their baby was safely tucked away, allowing the couple to join the exodus from school in their Ford Fusion, which fortuitously had a full tank of gas. They were confident their house would be OK, since the fire by all accounts didn’t appear to be threatening the Stone Creek neighbourhood.

The experiences of that day and the days and weeks following were “life-changing,” says Erica, 28. “It was fairly surreal; we just took it one day at a time,” she recalls.

Ronald, 30, looks back and sees so many positives, how well-organized the emergency response was, at the school and in Fort McMurray; how the evacuees were quickly met with help from the city of Edmonton, the provincial government and insurance companies; how family and friends surrounded them with support, especially after they learned their house had been totally destroyed in the fire.

Silver linings
The life-changing events of those first few weeks didn’t stop with the fire and the temporary resettlement at Ronald’s mom’s home in Edmonton. On June 1, Erica gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Reuben, at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, part of the Royal Alexandra Hospital where Erica’s aunt is a nurse.

The cloud of losing their home definitely came with a silver lining for the couple, Ronald points out. Instead of being in Fort McMurray with a new baby, they were in Edmonton, near their home towns of Lacombe and Red Deer in central Alberta. “The opportunity to be with family this summer was just excellent. They got to hang out with us and with Reuben and really get to know him.”

In August, Ronald and Erica and little Reuben moved back to Fort McMurray, into an apartment in the same building the young couple lived in before buying their first house in 2012. Noting the struggles of others who have lost their homes, trying to make do in temporary housing with four or five kids, Ronald calls the destruction of their house “very inconvenient, but something we can live with.”

Erica is on maternity leave from her Grade 3 teaching job, while Ronald is back teaching Grade 6. They have a builder lined up to rebuild their home but backlogs with insurance may mean construction delays into 2017 or even 2018.

“There are things in the house that can’t be replaced, things that meant a lot to me are gone, but we are all fine,” says Erica.

“We’ve made it through this and we now know we can make it through anything,” says Ronald, laughing.

August 28 was a very special day in the life of this young family, as Reuben was baptized in Evergreen CRC by Rev. George Holthof, the congregation’s retired pastor. Reuben was one of three evacuee babies baptized that Sunday.

Ronald says the congregation was able to resume holding services on June 26, less than two months after the fire, thanks in no small part to help from their alma mater, The King’s University. Pastors on the faculty readily answered Ronald’s call for preachers to get services going again. 

The Christian school and its families were welcoming a return to routine as the first months of school unfolded. And that’s a good thing, says Ronald, who says staff remain alert to signs of adjustment issues among students.

“Our faith, our family support, all made such a difference to us,” says Erica in reflecting on the upheaval of recent months, “And Reuben was a wonderful distraction, of course.”


  • Janet Vlieg-Paquette is a freelance writer, recently retired from the Edmonton Journal where she wore many hats in 40 years in the newsroom, including reporter, editor and writing coach. She is a member of Inglewood CRC in Edmonton.

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