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FORT MCMURR AY STRONG

THE STORY OF THE MANY HEROES OF THE G RE AT WOOD BUFFA LO WI LDFIRE


Thank you.

BMO is proud to support the first responders that saved Fort McMurray. Your sustained efforts made it possible for our community to come back together with a spirit that is stronger than ever.


An open letter to Fort McMurray’s Heroes We’ve heard there’s an unspoken code amongst fire fighters, police officers and first responders. We understand you don’t use the word “hero” in your conversations and discussions. Whatever the reason for your rule about that word, we wonder if it’s possible for a community to move beyond tragedy - without using it to say thank you. For the present, we respectfully ask you to embrace ‘hero’. It’s the right description for you, and one you’ve earned. There are so many of you, and you did so much. Together, you stood up for 90,000 of your neighbours and saved so much of your beautiful city. You solved unthinkable problems, only to be forced to press on and deliver one critical solution after another. You stayed ahead of the worst wildfire we have ever seen. You kept the strong, selfless people of this region safe as they dispersed across the province and the country. You made sure everyone made it out, and there’s no more important measure than that. We at BMO Financial Group are humbled and incredibly grateful for the selflessness you demonstrated. It inspired everyone to step forward and contribute their own efforts and resources. This indomitable community spirit is an inspiration for Canada, a shining example of Alberta’s strength, determination and ability to overcome. We know your sense of duty has already called upon you to meet many new challenges, especially as your region rebuilds. Please, for a moment, allow your community the chance to celebrate you for being the heroes we needed, and the heroes you are. On behalf of our employees, clients and customers - thank you.

Ken Fetherstonhaugh Managing Director and Vice President – BMO Private Banking, Prairies

Allison Hakomaki Vice President and Head - BMO Corporate Finance Division, Prairies

Shane Fildes Managing Director and Head – BMO Capital Markets, Calgary

Michael Wood Regional Manager and Senior Vice President – BMO Nesbitt Burns, West Region

Susan Brown Senior Vice President – Personal and Commercial Banking Alberta and Northwest Territories


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For more information visit SavingWoodBuffalo.ca

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Contents Quotes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ..................................... 10 Alberta Premier Rachel Notley ..................................... 12 Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake .......................... 14 Fort McMurray fire Chief wDarby Allen .................... 16

Come together Fighting the biggest blaze in Canadian history inspired collaboration ....................................................... 18

All for one Firefighters from across the province come to save Fort McMurray ....................................................................... 21

The great escape RCMP leads over 80,000 Wood Buffalo residents to safety .................................................................................... 33

Team players Fort McMurray city staff support fire crews, evacuation .............................................................................. 43

Lending support First Nations communities help fight fires, welcome evacuees .................................................................................... 51

All in Oilsands operators respond to call for help in Fort McMurray ................................................................................ 57

Safe haven Industry hosts evacuees, launches massive airlift to safety ................................................................................... 69

Safety valve Oilsands players shut down operations, then restart, without a hitch...................................................................... 85

The damage done How expensive is a 589,553-hectare wildfire? ....... 92

Slow and steady Builders pace themselves for marathon rebuilding process .................................................................................... 95

Mending hearts and minds Social agencies there from the beginning to help ..... 103

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the fire Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was exactly six months into his first term in charge of the federal government when news of the severity of the Wood Buffalo fire began filtering out of northeastern Alberta. Here are Trudeau’s reactions to the battle to save Wood Buffalo throughout the early days of the fire.

MAY 4, IN RESPONSE TO GREEN PARTY LEADER ELIZABETH MAY’S SUGGESTION THE FIRE WAS THE RESULT OF CLIMATE CHANGE

MAY 4

“I really do want to highlight that Canada is a country where we look out for our neighbours and we are there for each other in difficult times. And certainly, in Fort McMurray, the difficult times they are going through right now are something that we are going to unite around. I’ve been dealing with offers of support and calls from the Atlantic provinces to all the way out to B.C. for how they can support their friends and neighbours as people go through this difficult time.”

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“It’s well-known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather events around the planet. However, any time we try to make a political argument on one particular disaster, I think it’s a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome. There have always been fires. There have always been floods. Pointing at any one incident and saying, ‘This is because of that,’ is neither helpful, nor entirely accurate. We need to separate a pattern over time from any one event.”

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MAY 5

MAY 6

“While the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known, we certainly do know that for those who have been affected, this fire is absolutely devastating. It’s a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine. As prime minister, I want you to know that our government and all Canadians will stand by you and support you now and when it is time to rebuild.”

“Today, I speak for all Canadians when I say that our hearts go out to the families affected by this terrible fire. We are thinking of— and praying for— the people of Fort McMurray. Though Alberta’s loss is profound, we will get through this tragedy together: as friends, as neighbours, as Canadians. The outpouring of goodwill and compassion we have already seen from Canadians across the country has not only been inspirational, but stands as a testament to who we are as a nation.”

MAY 13, WHILE VISITING FORT MCMURRAY

“I don’t think Canadians yet understand what happened. They know there was a fire. They’re beginning to hear the wonderful news that so much of the town was saved. “But people don’t yet understand that saving the town was not due to rain, a shift in the wind or luck. This was the extraordinary response by people such as yourself. The work you did to save so much of this community, to save so much of this city and its downtown core…was unbelievable. It is a reflection not just of your extraordinary capacities and training, but of your courage and your will. The incredibly long days, the back-breaking and sometimes heartbreaking work that you were doing, the extraordinary presence you had that reassured everyone watching, including the prime minister, that everything was being done here, was just amazing.”

MAY 15

“There was a moment where we saw on the sidewalk a little child’s plastic scooter. The firefighters and first responders said, ‘Nobody’s touched that since the evacuation.’ That little plastic scooter—whatever little boy or girl was using that just before the evacuation—they’re safe. They’re alive.”

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TUESDAY, MAY 3

“I know that it’s a very scary time; I know it’s a very, very stressful time for people to have to leave their homes under these conditions. Our focus is completely and entirely right now on ensuring the safety of people, of getting them out of the city and ensuring they’re safe and secure.”

THURSDAY, MAY 5

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the fire One year into her job as Alberta premier, Rachel Notley was literally tested by fire as dry conditions ignited Wood Buffalo on May 1, quickly surrounding and engulfing the city of Fort McMurray. A massive evacuation followed, along with a ferocious fight to save the city. Here is a timeline of Notley’s comments throughout the crisis.

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“The fire has grown to roughly 85,000 hectares in size, so it’s large. To put it in context somewhat, in 2007 in that area there was a 60,000-hectare fire. So this is a large fire. The key issue is ensuring that we protect infrastructure in the community and that is the work that’s going on with the firefighters right now, and they will continue to do that work.”

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SUNDAY MAY 8

SATURDAY MAY 7

“IN NO WAY IS THIS FIRE UNDER CONTROL.”

“I’d like to express my profound gratitude for the quick work our colleagues at Canadian National did in getting potentially hazardous and flammable railcars out of the area as quickly as possible during this emergency—that was quick and critical work that saved us from any repetition of the tragedy at Lac Mégantic.”

MONDAY MAY 9

“This city will emerge from this emergency with real structural resiliency, with most of its critical infrastructure saved. This city was surrounded by an ocean of fire only a few days ago, but Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities have been saved, and they will be rebuilt.”

“I hadn’t realized...you go to a place where there was a house and what do you see on the ground? Nails. Piles and piles of nails. Because that’s what’s left when everything burns to the ground. Just nails everywhere.”

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“It’s hard to imagine how frightening it must have been for these families to have your kids in the car and be driving down that road and to be told that you can’t go any faster than 25 kilometres an hour when you’re seeing flames coming at you.”

“All of Alberta will have your back until this work has been completed. It is going to be made safe. It is a home you will return to.”

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Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake on the fire

MAY 1, ON THE FIRST EVACUATION TO MACDONALD ISLAND PARK

“Frankly I’ve been calling it Fort McMurray’s biggest sleepover and meeting a lot of families and folks who have come in and registered here. Cots are set-up, people are able to get some light snacks when they’re in there, there’s coffee for those that probably aren’t going to sleep tonight.”

Melissa Blake has guided her community through booms and busts during her tenure as Wood Buffalo mayor. Getting through the largest disaster in Alberta history, however, presented a unique challenge that she handled with a positive attitude and resolve.

MAY 2

MAY 4

“We’ve got great resources, certainly, in our Fort McMurray Fire Department, we’ve got mutual agreements if it comes to needing some specialized services with our industrial partners. I know that they would come if it was necessary. The guys that are taking the lead on this one are from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and they’ve got incredible expertise that they have access to.”

“Thank you, and that applies from A to B in this case. I’m always thankful for the ground troops that are doing battle and taking care of business on the ground and trying to prevent the head of this multiheaded monster. “It certainly is a setback. We’ve been a community fighting an uphill battle for a long time in terms of the change of rate of growth we’ve been experiencing, and I think that the absolute community spirit that developed through the transitional periods is still within each of us. So we hope to follow in the shadow of Slave Lake and persevere in our resolve and again look to the future. This is still a place of incredible strength, resiliency and vibrancy that will come back to us one day.”

MAY 3, ON THE EVACUATION

“PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE STAY CALM AND SHARE THE ROADS.”

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MAY 7

“I’ve seen people who have lost everything break down and then the next morning you see them and there’s smiles. They realize that they’ve got their lives, they’ve got their family and they’ve got the opportunity to rebuild. You see children who are completely oblivious to it, and it’s for the children that we all need to stay strong.”

JUNE 11, RECOUNTING THE EVACUATION OF FORT MCMURRAY

“I know captains go down with the ship, but do mayors burn with the city?”

MAY 10

“I have absolute faith that we will have our community back. I am absolutely certain that one day soon— maybe not as soon as we would want, but soon—we will be able to call this place home.”

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MAY 1

Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen on the fire

“One of the problems right now is the wind direction is changing quite erratically. So the wind direction might change and it might go in a different way. So right now it may not hit town until tomorrow morning, but if it keeps going the way it’s going, the fire will come. “We will be in firefighting mode within McMurray should the fire hit McMurray. So we have all our stuff in place and ready to go should the fire hit town.”

When the Wood Buffalo fire became frontpage news and the lead story on newscasts across Canada, Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen quickly became the face of the battle to save the city. Throughout the first two weeks of May, Allen laid out the dire situation in the community for Canadians and people around the world.

MAY 3; MORNING

“Don’t get into a false sense of security. We are in for a rough day. It will wake up, and it will come back.”

MAY 4

“I would say it’s been the worst day of my career. The community’s going to be devastated. This is going to take us a while to come back from, but we’ll come back. “It was a significant day with lots of fire in town. I was really concerned we lost a significant number of lives and a major amount of property.” MAY 5

MAY 3; AFTERNOON

“We are firefighting as we speak and homes are on fire as we speak. It’s not a question of how far away it is any more—it’s here.”

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“This is a nasty, dirty fire. There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them, and it will find them, and it will try and take them.”

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MAY 6

MAY 7

MAY 9

“We’re still here, we’re still battling. Things have calmed down in the city a little bit, but guys are out as we speak, fighting fires, trying to protect your property. The Beast is still up; it’s surrounding the city. And we’re here doing our very best for you.”

“No one is hurt and no one has passed away right now. I really hope we get to the end of this and we can still say that. We are here and we are strong, and we will keep doing our job.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve spoken to my forestry colleagues and they have never seen anything like this. This is rewriting the book on the way a fire moves, on the way a fire behaves.”

MAY 10

“WE THINK WE’VE GOT THIS THING BEAT IN FORT MCMURRAY, SO WE’RE LOOKING PRETTY GOOD.” MAY 12

“It’s impossible for me to thank everybody, so I just want to thank each and every person who was here and helped us fight this ring of fire. “This fire is not about Darby Allen. I was in a place where I told some people what we should do…and all those hundreds of people did that. I praise them; I’m humbled by them. I’m proud to be part of that team.”

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Come together

Saving Fort McMurray from “the Beast” and getting the surrounding forest fire under control required a major effort from firefighters across the province, the country and the world. Not only did fighting the blaze require immense manpower, but it also took a variety of large equipment and a great deal of supplies from fire departments and companies across the province.

FIGHTING THE BIGGEST BLAZE IN CANADIAN HISTORY INSPIRED COLLABORATION

TOTAL PEOPLE Total number of firefighters on the scene in Fort McMurray at the peak of the fire:

Total number of firefighters and support staff who battled the wildfires across Alberta at the peak:

500

2,705

Here is a look at some of the numbers behind those efforts.

FIREFIGHTERS FROM ALBERTA

Fort Chipewyan

Firefighters in the Fort McMurray contingent: Fort McKay

205 Firefighters from the surrounding communities of Saprae Creek, Anzac, Fort MacKay, Conklin and Fort Chipewyan:

Saprae Creek

Fort McMurray

Anzac

Conklin

90 Edmonton

Firefighters from Edmonton:

55 Firefighters from Calgary:

Calgary

29 = 10

Hours some firefighters went without rest while battling the blaze:

18

Forest Firefighters of Métis or First Nations descent:

24

500

Different firefighting departments across Alberta that sent help:

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FOREST FIREFIGHTERS FROM ACROSS CANADA

Northwest Territories

48 Saskatchewan

Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island

34

19

B.C.

113

Manitoba

Ontario

2

84

New Brunswick

7

FIREFIGHTERS FROM COMPANIES AND ORGANIZATIONS

FOREST FIREFIGHTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD

Sources: CBC News, Edmonton International Airport, Government of Alberta

Percentage of crews that came from private companies—including Syncrude, Suncor, Shell and Canadian Natural Resources Limited—at the peak of the fire: Firefighters from the U.S.:

Firefighters from Mexico:

Firefighters from South Africa:

199

41

299

25%

EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES Pieces of heavy equipment:

Tankers:

Helicopters:

16

94

4

Amount of water dumped by the heavy lift helicopters:

75,700 litres/hour BACK FROM THE BRINK

16 Firefighters from Parks Canada:

29 Firefighter from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre:

1 Purple K dry chemical fire extinguishing agent from the Edmonton International Airport (EIA):

236

Heavy lift helicopters:

Firefighters from Syncrude Canada:

2,500 pounds Pieces of equipment from the surrounding communities of Anzac, Conklin, Fort McKay and Saprae Creek:

9

Pieces of equipment from Edmonton

4

Pieces of equipment from Syncrude Canada:

16

Nitrogen (for activation of the Purple K) from the EIA:

1,200 cubic feet Kilometres of dozer guard completed:

535 19


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All for one FIREFIGHTERS FROM ACROSS THE PROVINCE COME TO SAVE FORT MCMURRAY

A warm, almost snowless winter, followed by a hot, dry spring, meant the 2016 wildfire season got off to an early start in the boreal forests surrounding Fort McMurray. “It’s important to note that in the last week of April, there

PHOTO: DIVERSIFIED TR ANSPORTATION

were four fires around town,” recalls Darby Allen, the Regional

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Municipality of Wood Buffalo fire chief. Allen was the face of the community to the outside world during those terrible days in May when the community was under siege by the massive wildfire he would later dub “the Beast.” “We extinguished all of those fires,” he adds. But on May 1, Allen got a call from Bernie Schmitte from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry telling him of a new fire near the city. Schmitte was worried a change in wind direction would push the fire directly into the community. 21


Jody Butz, assistant deputy chief of operations with the Regional Emergency Services in Wood Buffalo, oversaw the fight to save the city.

“I called all the guys in at one o’clock,” says Allen.

ground, getting updates on what was going on and pro-

“We started setting up the emergency operations centre

viding strategic objectives. When possible—usually only

[EOC] that day. We ended up looking at the path of the

in the wee hours of the morning, when the fire behaviour

fire and we hoped it might pass us by to the south, but

went down as the temperature dropped and the humidity

we evacuated three areas that day and went to a state of

rose—he got whatever sleep he could, wherever he could.

local emergency.”

“We all went into survival mode,” he says, adding

On the morning of May 2, Allen says, the fire was much

that he was extremely impressed with the firefighters

closer to Fort McMurray, “but we were still hopeful we

out fighting the fire. “They didn’t quit. The no-quit, de-

could contain it.”

termination, sense of duty is what saved 90 per cent of

Despite that optimism, Allen began ramping up his

the city. Collectively, everybody did what they had to do,

crews to prepare for battle. He had 32 firefighters on duty,

and when that was done, they did the next thing. They

and another 80 to 90 preparing for action.

just didn’t quit. That’s what prevented more of the city

On May 3, all hope was lost.

from burning.”

“It was not a good day,” Allen says simply. “The fire

Here’s just one example of what Butz means when

took a turn towards town and we had areas of the city on

he says “no-quit.” At one point, firefighters worked to

fire. The fire jumped the river and spread.”

save a house without water or equipment, as they were

It was all hands on deck as Allen called in all 157 of his operational staff.

being used elsewhere. Ingeniously, they used a wet mop to put out hot embers and spot fires. Butz explains that there’s no telling how many houses they actually saved

Jody Butz begins a week-long ordeal

“That one little example could have saved one, 10, 100

Regional Emergency Services in Wood Buffalo, entered

houses, I don’t know. The amount of houses saved by the

the EOC as operations section chief on May 1. It would be

firefighters can never be measured. We can measure the

a week before he left the building.

damage, but we can’t measure how much was saved or

Butz’s role was to oversee everything related to opera-

22

by preventing that one house from going up in flames.

Jody Butz, assistant deputy chief of operations with the

what could have been,” he says.

tions as firefighters on the ground worked to suppress the

Through all of this, Butz says there was a sense of calm

fire. He stayed in contact with the fire commanders on the

and a high level of professionalism; nobody panicked. The

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first couple of days were very demoralizing, as house after house was lost and minds began to assume the worst. “We are trained to attack fire, but were forced to walk away from some to save another

Fort McKay fire Chief Mel Grandjamb and his crew of 10 firefighters rushed into Fort McMurray to fight the blaze.

structure—extremely tough operational decisions that will resonate with us all for the rest of our careers,” he says. Rural fire departments surrounding the city and oilsands emergency response teams were called in to help.

Fort McKay comes to town When Mel Grandjamb got the call from his deputy fire chief, Ron Quintal, telling him that Fort McMurray needed Fort McKay’s help, all he could say was, “What!?” “McMurray’s on fire, brother!” Quintal repeated. In the 10 years that Grandjamb has been the Fort McKay fire chief, this was the first time his department had been called to town. “So I jumped on my Harley—I was riding my Harley to work in town that day, which was probably a good thing because I was able to weave in and out of the traffic that had already jammed the streets,” he says.

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Carl Greening fights with “brothers and sisters” from across the province to save Fort McMurray Carl Greening, a firefighter with the Fort McMurray Fire Department’s B Platoon, was assigned to an ambulance on the morning of May 3. While transferring a patient to the hospital, he saw the wildfire approaching and knew the day wasn’t going to go as expected. In fact, it was a day that would change his and his family’s lives forever, as it changed those of virtually every resident of the city. All trucks were staffed by the time Greening reported back to Fire Hall 1, so he was directed to jump onto a Fort McKay Fire Department truck. They sped off, encountering their first big fight in the community of Grayling Terrace, where they saved all but five homes with the help of the Shell Albian Sands Emergency Response Services. From there, Greening jumped onto a Canadian Natural Resources Limited truck to fight a fire across the street from the hospital, then headed into the Wood Buffalo region, where the crew continued to try to put out flames until the following morning. In the following days, Greening would become part of the crews of the Olds, Cold Lake, Beiseker, Edmonton and Leduc fire departments. It was an unforgettable experience. “Working with my brothers and sisters from all around the province was rewarding because I got to meet people I would have never had the opportunity to work with,” he says. On day two, the location was in Thickwood and then Greening’s own community of Stonecreek. He fought raging flames just blocks from his own home, which was ultimately lost. Greening says he knew his home was probably gone but, at the time, he didn’t think about what that meant. “There was so much work to be done, the fire was so big and moving so quickly, the only thing I wanted to do was protect as much property as I could. At the time, there are so many other things happening and you can only respond to what’s happening in front of you and do the job you have to do,” he says. Greening and those who fought alongside him throughout the city did whatever they could to save property, including taking shovels from people’s sheds to knock down burning fences when there was no water nearby. Their efforts saved the vast majority of the city but, for firefighters trained to beat the fire, the losses weigh heavily. “When I think about everything we were able to do and all the property we were able to save, it makes me feel humbled and proud beyond words,” says Greening. “But in life, I expect that you get what you give, and we all gave so much that even one loss of a home is heartbreaking. We all want 100 per cent save, and that might not have been realistic, but the desire is always to walk away knowing that nothing is lost.” 24

Industry fire crews played a major role in saving the city, including Clark Esler’s crew from Suncor Energy.

In the meantime, Quintal dispatched a pumper to town and picked up Grandjamb in a command vehicle. “The pumper got to t he fire hall in For t McMurray before I did and got dispatched to Beacon Hill,” Grandjamb recalls. “Our other deputy chief, James McIsaac, was in that truck, but he couldn’t get into Beacon Hill because of the amount of smoke, so we convened back at the fire hall.” Fort McKay’s team of 10 firefighters was then dispatched to Grayling Terrace. To the northeast of Grayling Terrace was Abasand, already engulfed in flames. To the south was the high ground of Beacon Hill, burning. Both neighbourhoods sustained some of the worst of Fort McMurray’s wildfire damages. And in between these infernos was Grayling Terrace. “I didn’t know they were losing Beacon Hill. I didn’t know they were losing Abasand. But we went into the southern part of Grayling Terrace and could see the trees burning on the hill. And here we were at the bottom of this bowl, ashes…falling across the entire subdivision,” Grandjamb recalls. His crew came to two structures, already billowing with black smoke. He recognized that those houses would inevitably burst into flames, so his strategy was to prevent the fire from spreading. “That’s when all your training k ick s in. The training becomes your natural response,” Grandjamb says. “We laid down as much water as

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we could get on these two units for about an hour

or 22 years old,” he says. “So it was me and

and a half after we got there and eventually put

a bunch of kids. But these young guys were

it out.”

so determined and focused and so busy that

A crew from Shell’s Albian Sands also fought the

they didn’t even realize their lives were en-

wildfire in a different part of Grayling Terrance.

dangered when they were fighting that fire.”

Together, these two crews fought back the wildfire

The Fort McKay crews supported Fort

in the area and scored one of the most decisive

McMurray’s firefighting efforts for seven

victories in the battle to save Fort McMurray.

days in total and were dispatched through-

Only a handful of houses were lost in the

out the town.

neighbourhood, which earned the heroes a hearty congratulations and vigorous handshaking back at

The Beast battles back

central command. Grandjamb was a bit surprised

Despite the outside help, by evening things

by the enthusiasm—until he learned that the other

had gotten worse. Centennial and Abasand

two neighbourhoods had been lost.

were on fire, and the fire was approaching

What made this feat even more significant for Fort McKay’s fire crews was their collective age. “I’m 50 and my deputy’s 40-something, but there’s five or six members whose average age is 21

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the water treatment plant needed to fight the blaze. “That was the day we evacuated all of McMurray,” says Allen.

25


The original plan was to send everyone south, but it

across Alberta came, and Canada Task Force 2, a di-

quickly became apparent the road system couldn’t han-

saster emergency response team, provided support.

20,000–25,000 evacuees north and 60,000 south.

“There were no reports of fatalities,” he ex-

“It was a significant day with lots of fire in town,”

plains. “And with everyone evacuated, we were not

says Allen. “I was really concerned we lost a significant

so worried about saving lives. Our first job is life

number of lives and a major amount of property.”

preservation and then preserving critical infra-

On the fourth day of the fire, the province declared a provincial state of emergency as the fire grew to 10,000 hectares in size. “We were struggling, but we felt fairly confident most people had managed to get out of town,” Allen recalls. “It was a very busy day. The fire was fast and ferocious, and we had a lot to deal with.” But help was on the way. “The province sent in the cavalry,” says Allen.

26

But that wasn’t even the best news for Allen.

structure. With that done, we could now just fight fires on residential properties.” But Allen says it wasn’t until about nine days into the fire that he felt the city “had seen the worst of it.” The fire chief accepted his role as media spokesman for the effort to save Wood Buffalo, but he shrugs off any personal accolades. He says beating the Beast required the efforts

Water bombers, helicopters and fresh ground crews

of numerous organizations and people. His crew of

from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry arrived on scene.

215, including 154 operational staff, deserves those

Crews from 28 other fire departments in cities and towns

accolades, he says.

PHOTO: RCMP SGT. DICK TREMB L AY

dle the load. The EOC decided to split the city, sending

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


The battle for Anzac plays out in the shadow of the war for Fort McMurray

“Lots of guys came in at the start and never went home,” he says, adding the firefighters from the rural communities surrounding the city also played a major role. “A lot of those guys came and never left until help came and it became more manageable.”

Industry responds Allen also singles out the oilsands industry’s emergency response teams. “They came in right away, from day one, and stayed for six or seven days,” he notes. Clark Esler, Suncor’s manager of emergency regional management, was at a training course when the call from Fort McMurray’s EOC came in for equipment and people. As members of the Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Regional Mutual Aid Emergency Response Organization, Suncor, Syncrude, Shell Albian Sands and Canadian Natural Resources Limited were all called at the same time. Esler rushed back to Suncor’s base plant just north of town and initially sent two fire trucks and nine people. Suncor’s firefighting crew sizes and equipment would vary over the coming days, according to what was needed, but being so close to the wildfire raging in Fort McMurray added a layer of complexity to Esler’s decision making.

BACK FROM THE BRINK

Flames were already coming down from the hillside of Abasand to Grayling Terrace when Anzac’s fire chief, Travis Cramer, met up with his community volunteer firefighters at Fire Hall 1 in Fort McMurray on May 3. “We had six members on the pumper, six on the rescue and two on the tanker,” Cramer recalls. “My tanker crews were sent to Beacon Hill. Our pumper was sent to Thickwood. Another crew to Abasand.” Anzac’s pump-and-roll unit, with its ability to spray water while moving, proved valuable in Thickwood. In Beacon Hill, the wildfire overtook the neighborhood and all crews had to retreat. “There’s only one way in and one way out of Beacon Hill,” Cramer says. “The two members on our tanker weren’t even sure if they were going to get out. Fortunately, they did.” In Abasand, Cramer and his crew fought alongside Fort McMurray crews for four hours, spraying down houses and setting up sprinkler systems on houses that would go on to survive the fire. But then, the area lost water pressure. From Abasand, Cramer relocated to Highway 63 before retreating to the Esso. Moments later, they were told to get out of there as well. “It sounded like a war zone, like bombs going off all around us as vehicles, gas cans and propane tanks blew up,” he says. A long night of cat-and-mouse fire fights took Cramer and his crews across the city, from Crescent Heights by the hospital, to the graveyard where they fought grassfires, to Timberlea at about midnight. In the early morning of May 4, leaving his pumper in town, Cramer and a couple crew members drove the 50 kilometres southeast to Anzac to re-evaluate the fire risk there. Satisfied Anzac was still relatively safe, they returned to Fort McMurray to relieve their pumper crew. After a brief rehab, Cramer fought the wildfire until about 9 p.m. on May 4, when the wildfire turned on Anzac. By midnight, Cramer could see the wildfire across Gregoire Lake. It was approaching, but Anzac wasn’t under evacuation order. In fact, about 2,000 or 3,000 Fort McMurray evacuees had fled there. “It got to the point where some of our community leaders and our fire department made the call to evacuate. So with the RCMP, we went door to door telling people to evacuate. An hour or two later, operation command in Fort McMurray made the call to evacuate Anzac,” Cramer says. Commandeering three water tankers, Cramer entered the desperate drama unfolding to save Anzac. Incident command in Fort McMurray told him to abandon the community, but he dug in his heels; he and his crews took on the wildfire alone. Fort McMurray sent resources. A plane bombed the wildfire with fire retardant, partly deflecting the fire’s approach. Cramer then appropriated earthmoving machinery and fought at a number of fronts to keep the flames at bay. “We were knocking down trees. We had Cats right in the fire—we were hosing them down to keep them cool,” he says. “By then, we were getting some other pumpers coming in to help us.” On the morning of Friday, May 6, Cramer’s fire crews were forced to retreat as high winds whipped the wildfire. After a short rest and re-evaluation, and with the arrival of more reinforcements, his crews went back in and fought through the weekend before they started to get the upper hand. If not for the determination and heroic stand Cramer and his fire hall members made, Anzac would have fallen. Instead, more than 80 per cent of the community survived.

27


Cut off from their own community by the wildfire, the Saprae Creek department saves homes in Fort McMurray From what Darren Clarke could tell as he stood in his garage in Saprae Creek on that Tuesday morning, it looked like it might be a pretty quiet day. The wildfire was billowing smoke to the west, but that’s what wildfires do, and it didn’t look too crazy. By noon, however, everything changed. Saprae Creek’s fire chief got a call from his friend, who works as a firefighter at Syncrude but is also a volunteer firefighter in Saprae Creek, telling him the smoke over the city had turned into a towering black cloud in the last 30 minutes. “He wanted to see if I could make sure his kids and his nanny were safe,” Clarke says. Clarke called his wife, who works at the local college in Fort McMurray. She had been told to evacuate. He checked on his friend’s children and nanny and, at about 1:30 p.m., a request from Fort McMurray came for crews and equipment. Clarke rounded up eight Saprae Creek volunteer firefighters, a pumper, a structural protection sprinkler trailer and a wildland unit, and headed for town. His crews were split up on different assignments in Fort McMurray. The sprinkler trailer went to Abasand until hydrant water pressure became

28

tapped out, the pumper went to Beacon Hill and then across the river to Thickwood, and Clarke and one of his crew went to Gregoire with the tanker where they chased spot fires before ending up downtown. By Wednesday, May 4, the wildfire blew into Saprae Creek. “Saprae Creek has one road in and one road out. The way the fire came in, it would have been suicidal to go there. And we had no water supply; the water hydrants were all down,” Clarke says. By Wednesday evening at around 6, Clarke and two of his firefighters got a chance to make a trip to their home community to see what they could do. But as they came to the community’s mailboxes, a wall of fire blocked any further access. They were convinced that Saprae Creek had been lost. “It was terrible to come back and tell the rest of the Saprae Creek crew what we saw,” he recalls. “We met at Fire Hall 5 and just stood down for a half hour. We collected our thoughts and what we wanted to do. There was no moping. We now had our crew back together along with our tanker and pumper and our pickup with the wildland unit, and we could work as a unit. So we reset our trucks and reloaded our things. There were still a lot of homes that needed to be saved, and we went back to work.”

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


“We also had to assess the potential impacts on

says. “Even more amazing—and what was really critical to

the facility and whether we were going to have to

making sure the wildfire was brought under control—was

shut down the plant and how to ensure the safety of

that there were people working in the front lines for days

our people. At the same time, all of us were think-

and weeks who knew that their houses were gone. And

ing about where our families were in all of this

they didn’t stop. There were people who actually couldn’t

and how to ensure that they were safe,” Esler says.

put out the fire on houses belonging to people they knew.

His efforts were divided across three trajecto-

This was personal.

ries: managing his team’s efforts in the fire fight in

“We have a young lad here who roared up to a house

Fort McMurray, keeping Suncor’s base plant facility

that was on fire. It was his brother’s, and he couldn’t save

safe from the wildfire and overseeing the evacua-

it. But all of those people, and obviously not only Suncor’s,

tion of the thousands of people who had different

continued to push on and continue to do what they had

points of contact with Suncor facilities.

to do for the greater good.”

Reflecting upon the massive effort to save Fort McMurray from the wildfire, what impressed Esler

In comes the cavalry

the most was how all the emergency responders—

By early the next morning firefighters began to pour in

from industry, local communities and all over

from across the province, says Allen.

Canada—all came together and “acted as one big fire department.” “There was no separation. Everyone worked together. It was neighbours helping neighbours,” he

“At the height of the fire, there were approximately 500 firefighters on the scene and forestry had 2,100 firefighters fighting the fire. They were battling day and night, hour after hour,” he adds.

THANK YOU In the face of The Beast, you stood strong, battled hard and brought the flames to an end. When people were in peril, you stepped up and helped those in need. To the heroes and volunteers of the Fort McMurray wildfires thank you for showing the world what it means to be #albertastrong.

From everyone at

BACK FROM THE BRINK

29


“It was my honour to serve with these men and women.” — Darby Allen, Fort McMurray fire chief

They came from the cities and the smaller towns— around 500 firefighters from 42 different departments at the peak of the fire—all to help their firefighting compatriots from Fort McMurray save their community. Lac La Biche firefighters were the first to arrive on scene after the call was put out for help, a source of pride for regional fire Chief John Kokotilo.

Thompson said. “It’s almost like a family thing. You see it like it’s your family up there because of what we all do. When your family’s having problems or you see them in trouble, you want to go help,” deputy fire Chief Jason Kjorsvik said. The first two weeks of May, municipal fire depart-

“The Lac La Biche County firefighters are some of the

ments from Mountain View County sent personnel and

best wildland firefighters out there,” he said in the days

equipment in three groups to Fort McMurray. The first

following the deployment.

group, comprised of 13 people—of which seven were

Soon after came reinforcements from other departments. The Edmonton fire department dispatched 19 firefighters, two pump trucks and two tankers late in the evening on Tuesday, May 3, after the mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray was announced. Another 36 firefighters quickly followed to ensure there would be

from Olds—left the evening of May 3 and worked until May 6. That number swelled to 21—five from Olds—in the second group. They were in the area from May 6–10. The third included 19—seven from Olds—from May 10–13.

crews around the clock. Calgary sent 29 firefighters, and

Once in Fort McMurray, they worked to put out struc-

then crews from the smaller cities and towns poured in.

ture fires in residential areas that had rekindled, relieving

All say it was an experience they will never forget.

local firefighters who had gone without rest for more than

“A lot of them are young firefighters. It’ll be something

24 hours. They were quickly struck by the devastation and

they’ll always remember on their careers,” Edmonton District Chief Ron Sawchuk said on the arrival of his crews at home in early June. “I know for myself, it’ll be something I always remember.” Calgary firefighters were responsible for protecting Fort McMurray’s downtown area. Capt. Danny Freeman gave Metro a play-by-play of the battle. “There were seven spots where the fire was coming

loss people had experienced. “It’s disheartening. You’ve just watched somebody’s entire neighbourhood, gone,” Kjorsvik said. “You realize what really matters and it’s not your car, it’s not your house. It’s your family, your friends, people. That’s what really matters—these situations always remind me of that. Take the time to be with them when you can,” Thompson said.

across into downtown,” he recalled. “We weren’t going to

They also noted an eerie silence in the area. Thompson

lose the downtown. No way. We stood shoulder to shoulder

said they eventually shut the sirens off their trucks be-

the whole way.”

cause with only other emergency personnel present, there

Freeman also took part in battling the massive Slave

was nobody to warn.

Lake fire five years ago. This fire was much worse, he said.

Another sight that stood out was the randomness of

“In 34 years, I have never seen devastation like that,”

the destruction. Kjorsvik said entire subdivisions would be

he explained. “It was just coming at you all the time.” Olds Fire Department members recounted their experiences in the Olds Albertan.

30

the fire departments did the same thing,” Chief Lorne

destroyed, save for a single house—or a child’s backyard swing set—that had gone undamaged. Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen was grateful

“You want to get up there and help them. You know

for the help from across Alberta. In an open letter to fire

they would come and help you. If something happened

departments, Allen said, “It was my honour to serve with

here, they’d be lined up to help Olds, so Olds and all

these men and women.”

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


The great escape RCMP LEADS OVER 80,000 WOOD BUFFALO RESIDENTS TO SAFETY

Wood Buffalo RCMP Supt. Rob McCloy was in Paris celebrating his 28th anniversary when he got word Fort McMurray was on fire. “We got a phone call telling us something was happening in Fort McMurray. My wife went on Facebook, and we saw the city was literally burning,” says the 27-year veteran of the force and leader of the Wood Buffalo detachment.

PHOTO: G REG HA LINDA

McCloy quickly decided he needed to get home and, after calling the airline, the Canadian Embassy and the RCMP liaison officer in Paris, managed to book a flight home on May 5. “That was the longest flight of my life,” he says. “We kept hearing our house was gone, and then not gone, and then gone.” It turned out to be safe.

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33


RCMP Supt. Rob McCloy and Sgt. Dick Tremblay. McCloy says his members proved their mettle in the evacuation.

Once back in Alberta, McCloy set up shop in Edmonton to run the detachment remotely. He then made a couple of trips to the city to assess the situation. The RCMP played a major role in evacuating the city, in some instances going door to door to get people out. Along with local bylaw officers and sheriffs, they managed traffic within the city and on Highway 63 to get residents to safety. Once Fort McMurray was evacuated, they protected property within the city until residents could return. “It was really a miracle getting 80,000–90,000 residents out of town without injury or death,” says McCloy. But there were a number of reasons that miracle happened, he adds. The first was the planning in place for emergencies in Wood Buffalo. Because of past experiences with fires, McCloy says, the structure was already in place to deal with the emergency when the fire hit town.

34

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


“How they got all those people down the highway while it burned, that goes to the people who live here. They were so respectful of everyone else. The best of the city showed up in that.” — Supt. Rob McCloy, Wood Buffalo RCMP

“The Regional Emergency Operations Centre [REOC] was set up with Darby Allen as director,” he explains. “We followed directions from them. Then came the call for evacuation. Because there are usually small fires at that time of year, there was a plan in place and it was done well. They looked where the emergency was, where they needed to evacuate, and moved the people out safely. “The RCMP are well trained for this kind of disaster,” he adds. “You can’t be 100 per cent prepared, but we are prepared the best you can be.” Each year, the detachment goes through a business

Insp. Lorna Dicks was officer in charge during the evacuation.

continuity planning session to ensure it can do its job in the event of a disaster. “Last year’s scenario was a fire,” says McCloy. The second factor in the safe evacuation of the city was the behaviour of the people leaving the city, he explains.

B u t M c C l o y s a y s h i s l o c a l t e a m d e s e r ve s s p e c i a l recognition.

“The public was fantastic, when you look at what could

“They stood up as leaders, took control of the situation and

have gone wrong. You’re dealing with fire going down

didn’t drop the ball,” he explains. “That’s what we expect them

each side of the road,” he says. “How they got all those

to do, but you don’t know it until you see it in action.”

people down the highway while it burned, that goes to the people who live here. They were so respectful of everyone

Taking charge

else. The best of the city showed up in that.”

This includes Insp. Lorna Dicks, who was the officer in charge

Early on, Wood Buffalo detachment members, 190 in strength, faced the crisis on their own. But a call for help quickly added 300 members from detachments across Canada, says McCloy. “They came from across Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba. Around 30 came from Newfoundland,” he

during the evacuation. “She stood up to the plate and dealt with a dramatic and large situation,” he notes. “She did a fantastic job.” Dicks had 15 RCMP officers under her charge who lost their houses but kept working, and a force of 136 who evacuated a city of over 80,000 and worked around the clock for days.

notes, adding that because the RCMP is a national police

She calls May 3 her proudest day as an RCMP officer.

force, members can quickly adapt in such situations. “We

“To see what these officers did—risking their own life for

can drop someone from Newfoundland in and the cars, uniforms, radios, everything is the same, so they are ready to go.”

BACK FROM THE BRINK

the public’s safety—was amazing and incredible,” she says. A 20-year RCMP veteran, Dicks moved to Fort McMurray last November and is part of the technical investigative services

35


branch, or plainclothes section. Like many others, a text

cop in the city reported for duty. The local sher-

alerted her to the situation.

iff and municipal law enforcement called us and

“My sister-in-law, who lived in Beacon Hill, texted

helped, too,” explains Dicks.

me to ask if she should go pick her nine-year-old up

May 3 was all about getting people evacuated, with

from school. I responded ‘why?’ …She texted a photo of

thousands going south and 20,000 remaining north.

flames—metres away from her home.”

A few days later, the RCMP evacuated those on the

In fewer than two hours, her brother’s and sister-

north end of the city in convoys of 50 cars at a time.

in-law’s house was burned. Heartbroken for them, but

In addition, officers went door to door, ensuring

focused on her work, Dicks was already on the move to

everyone was gone and helping to evacuate those

evacuate the city.

who stayed. Patrols kept the city safe.

“We knew it was close, but not this close. My first

“From Tuesday to Friday [May 3–6], I had worked

thought was to get people out. The training kicks in; you

87 hours, and most other officers worked the same or

go on autopilot. We were as prepared as we could be for

more; because of this, we were relieved on Saturday.

an evacuation,” recalls Dicks, who used to live in Fort

The 15 who lost their houses were relieved even be-

McMurray over 20 years ago and asked to be transferred

fore us, because they were dealing with a lot more,”

back to the city to be closer to family.

recalls Dicks, who headed south to join her brother’s

She immediately contacted the REOC and sent a team to Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways to help. Next, she made the call for help to K Division—RCMP’s Alberta headquarters in Edmonton.

family at his cabin. When she returned during the last week of May, the city served her a big surprise. “It was incredible how green everything was.

“From Newfoundland to British Columbia, we had

When I had left, it was still burning. It was a strong

a total of 1,300 officers helping over the course of the

reminder that life goes on and that we can rebuild.”

month. But, during those first few hours, it was just us.

Speaking of which, Dicks worked with the REOC to prepare for re-entry, slated for June 1, 2016.

PHOTO: DIVERSIFIED TR ANSPORTATION

We called for mandatory overtime, which meant every

36

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


Const. Sam Hilliard’s introduction to Wood Buffalo fire a message of worry

With fire burning on both sides of the road, residents kept calm and evacuated, says the RCMP.

Wood Buffalo RCMP Const. Sam Hilliard was on a surveillance course in Edmonton when he got word of the fire engulfing Fort McMurray. “I got a call from my wife, who is also an RCMP member,” he recalls. “She was stuck at the King Street overpass. It was the worst call I ever got in my life. She thought she might burn to death with our son as the vehicles in front of her were stopping and people were getting out to run. I got her to jump the meridian to get out.” It took 12 hours, but Hilliard’s family made it to the safety of Edmonton. Meanwhile, he was rushing to head the other way. After hunting down a pick-up truck, Hilliard went out and bought as many gas cans as he could, filled them, and headed up the highway. “I arrived the afternoon of May 4 at the checkpoint on main artery in and out of town,” he notes. Hilliard immediately went to work evacuating the Fort McMurray reserves and the community of Gregoire Lake Estates. Then it was back to the checkpoint as an acting corporal in the traffic division. “There were 14 of us responsible for that checkpoint,” he says. “The hardest thing was not letting people in for family members or pets. It was quite tough in there.” Adding to the stress, the RCMP officers manning the checkpoint slept on the north side of the city while working on the south side. “We drove through fire to and from work,” explains Hilliard. “The first day, it was hard to drive through it. You would go through areas where it was so smoky you had to drive bumper to bumper. Between the landfill and the gun range, you would see flames on the side of the road and then you couldn’t see anything. You could feel the heat and your heart would start pumping.” While traffic was moving south out of the city, there were still hundreds of motorists north of the city who were trapped by smoke and fire. Two officers remained there to keep the evacuees from panicking. “Every day, we would send people through the city to see how far they could get,” says Hilliard. “One finally made it to Parsons Creek and back. That’s when we decided to open the road to get the rest of the people out. The plan was to do it at five or six in the morning, but there was no wind that night so we got at it. At 5:30 in the morning, there was still a steady stream of traffic. We got them out in three and a half hours.” Hilliard believes Fort McMurray was evacuated safely largely due to the sizeable police presence and the calmness of everyone involved. He adds it was not just the RCMP who can claim credit for the safe evacuation. “The sheriffs never left the community,” he notes. “They were here working with hundreds of RCMP members from outside who didn’t know the community, helping them out.”

37


FOLIO

How a photo launched RCMP Sgt. Dick Tremblay into the wildest day of his life For RCMP Sgt. Dick Tremblay, the great exodus out of Fort McMurray all started with a photograph. “I was sitting at my desk when my wife, who works as a home care nurse going from patient to patient, emailed me a photo of the fire asking if it was a flare-up in town. I didn’t think the fire was that close, but then she sent a second photo. A picture is worth a thousand words. I sent it up to my boss immediately, and on reviewing the picture he came to my desk to ask where the fire was. I said, I think it’s in town.” He immediately set out to check on the fire, travelling to École Boréal, where his son attends school. “I jumped into an RCMP truck at around 1:30 on May 3 to zip by the school to make sure my son was safe and check on the fire,” he recalls. “As I got there, I could see fire behind the school. The flames were 200 feet tall approaching the school, and I could see the kids being evacuated.” Tremblay saw his wife and son at the scene and advised them to go straight home. “I wanted to get more knowledge of the fire,” he continues. “There were a couple of rows of houses behind the school, so I drove about two kilometres down the road then went in on foot, and I saw the magnitude of the fire. It was a wall of fire; the most threatening thing I have ever seen in my life.” Tremblay immediately called his superiors and told them the fire was coming toward the rows of houses behind the school. “He said to start to evacuate and we will send help. I took the truck and used the PA system to ask people to evacuate,” he says, adding that with only one escape route out of the area, “people were starting to panic. “I met with the rest of our staff at the school. We were starting to see tornadoes of fire. It was creating its own microclimate as it approached the school,” he says. Tremblay then got news of a traffic jam at the bottom of Abasand Hill, where the evacuees were trying to merge onto Highway 63. It had to be cleared before people were trapped on the hill as it became engulfed in flames. Around 10 minutes after the community was finally evacuated and the last RCMP members came down, “the fire took over Abasand Hill,” says Tremblay. It then leaped Highway 63, threatening the hospital. “I went to the hospital and asked if they had an evacuation plan,” he explains. “They said they had a plan, but needed buses. The plan was to evacuate to Noralta Lodge. There were three or four houses on fire near the hospital. I saw a city bus and went on foot to catch it. I said to the driver to get as many buses as you can here. Within 30 minutes, there were 17 buses. They just started loading up. I was done at the hospital by 8:30.” Tremblay then went back to the detachment and met with acting officer in charge Lorna Dicks, who asked where his wife and son were. “She said, ‘I think we are going to lose the city tonight. You have to get them out.’ I called my wife and said, ‘You have five minutes to gather our stuff, and I will escort you out of town.’”

Cpl. Erika Laird led the evacuation of Beacon Hill.

“We were starting to see tornadoes of fire. It was creating its own microclimate as it approached the school,” says Tremblay.

38

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


“We worked on how we would manage numbers. But,

She was headed to the community of Thickwood, which

what stood out for me is how amazing the public was.

they had been told could be the first to be hit by the fire, when

They listened to us, and things worked.

she was called back to Beacon Hill to act as the non-com-

“I returned home to an overgrown yard with [un-

missioned officer in charge of evacuating the community.

kempt] grass. And, as I dug weeds, our neighbours who

“A small group of us arrived there,” she recalls. “You

know my husband and I are with the RCMP, came out to

could hardly see when we got there, and in five to 10

hug me. It was fantastic to see the community’s grati-

minutes the fire jumped to Beacon Hill.”

tude. We also had 40 RCMP members in the Canada Day parade, and the cheering and clapping there was great and amazing, too!”

Laird and her team manned their bullhorns, sirens blazing, to get people to evacuate the community. “In some areas we did go door to door, those areas closest to the fire, but those people were already on their

Newcomer faces largest evacuation in Canadian history

way out,” she says. “There was no way to do all the houses.”

Only six months into her posting at the Wood Buffalo RCMP

munity as residents fled.

detachment, Cpl. Erika Laird found herself in the middle of the largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history.

BACK FROM THE BRINK

Laird says traffic backed up throughout the com“By the time we were leaving, fire surrounded all the vehicles driving out,” she says.

39


know what you would be doing in the day. The next

“When we were driving out of Beacon Hill, right through the fire, we went to Gregoire, and the grass and trees were on fire.” — Cpl. Erika Laird, Wood Buffalo RCMP

day, it came into Timberlea. We moved a lot more people out of town. The day after that, we assisted in the Anzac evacuation. We spent time out on the highway making sure the roads were closed, and we were still going to calls making sure everyone was out of the community.” Laird says after they evacuated Beacon Hill and Gregoire and moved south to continue getting people to safety, help began arriving from other RCMP detachments.

But the evacuation was successful, with no injuries or lost lives. “When we were driving out of Beacon Hill, right through the fire, we went to Gregoire, and the grass and trees were on

She believes the large presence of police was

fire. We knew by then that Waterways was on fire. We evacuated

key to the safe exit of over 80,000 people from Fort

Gregoire as fast as we could,” she says. “There were bombers

McMurray.

in that area. That is definitely when it hit. I have been in disas-

“A lot of it was people moving out and moving

ters before, but I never expected to have to evacuate a whole

out in an orderly fashion,” she notes. “They were

community.”

listening to directions and not arguing. We had

Laird spent the next few days on the move as more and more residents faced evacuation. “The next few days were a series of jumps from camp to camp every night, one night twice,” she says. “You didn’t

40

“They came first from Boyle and Lac La Biche. That was a relief,” she adds.

to keep juggling, moving people north and south to keep traffic flowing. The constables were redirecting traffic, unclogging intersections and doing their best to keep things flowing.”

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


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Saving Wood Buffalo The extraordinary stories of ordinary people who fought and beat the Fort McMurray wildfire dubbed “the Beast”

In May 2016, a wildfire devastated Fort McMurray and its surrounding communities. The largest wildfire and most expensive disaster in Alberta history unfolded on screens around the world. Learn more about the experience through the stories of people who were there: ■

Stunning imagery from

during and after the

80,000 residents

wildfire ■

Police who evacuated

Local people who

Heartfelt stories of bravery

supported the fire­

and resilience

fighting and evacuation

Firefighters who risked

efforts

Order NOW Great gift for employees and customers Limited number of copies available Only $49.95 plus shipping and handling – Bulk orders of 10 or more only $39.95 each To get your copy, visit: xsavingwoodbuffalo.cax

their lives to tame the Beast Read stories from the first responders and the community. Learn about the heroes who fought back the flames, evacuated Fort McMurray and welcomed residents home, in their own words.

in partnership with

$10 from the sale of each book goes to the Fort McMurray Firefighters’ Relief Fund


Team players FORT MCMURRAY CITY STAFF SUPPORT FIRE CREWS, EVACUATION

It wasn’t just first responders who faced “the Beast” when it came to town in early May: a number of Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) employees were also on the front lines of the battle. For Robert Walsh, RMWB equipment fleet supervisor, the 20 days in May that fire threatened—and consumed parts of—Fort McMurray were a blur of long days and sleepless nights. And, like many RMWB employees who stayed virtually on the front lines during the crisis, the sleepless nights began well before the general evacuation of 80,000 people was ordered on May 3.

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in the same situation; his family was safe, so we started making arrangements then.” With the fire now bracketing Highway 63, Walsh and Sheaves headed north to TaigaNova, taking one of the RMWB’s fuel supply trucks and commandeering a by-

“I slept on a desk with a couple of winter coats as pillow and bed; Norm pulled the bylaw vehicle into the shop and slept there.”

law services vehicle that was in the shop for servicing. “The bylaw vehicle was equipped with the emergency flashing lights—that was the only way we could move through town.” With a full fuel supply truck, the two went to Fire Hall 1 in downtown Fort McMurray, where fire Chief Darby Allen was directing firefighting efforts.

— Robert Walsh, RMWB equipment fleet supervisor

“By then we had a few other guys, we got some more fuel trucks, went to the fire hall,” he says. “We spent that first night going through town; wherever the fire trucks were, we made sure they had fuel, then moved on to the next one.” Once the fuel resupply was underway, Walsh and Sheaves moved on to water. Equipped with street flusher

“We actually started moving heavy equipment on

trucks, RMWB crews went to where the firefighters were.

Sunday, May 1, from our South Operations Centre on

If hydrants were dry, the firemen could hook up directly

Airport Road, in the south end of town—which is the

to the flusher trucks and fight the fire that way. “We did

direction the fire was coming from—to our public works

quite a bit of that in the first few days, until contractors

satellite yard north of the Athabasca River, near the water

were organized to come in and keep up with the demand

treatment plant,” he says. “We’d called in all available

for water.”

personnel, with transit drivers shuttling us back and

And with the firefighting water situation under con-

forth…we had a steady stream of traffic going through

trol, it was time to make sure the crews had drinking

town for pretty much all of Sunday night.”

water. On the night of the evacuation, a Culligan supply

The following day, the fire had doubled in size to more

truck showed up with bottled water. Walsh and his crews

than 2,500 hectares and was still south and west of Fort

loaded up and delivered the water to the fire crews. “We

McMurray, on the other side of the Hangingstone River.

just drove around town—wherever we found fire crews,

On Tuesday, all that changed—winds shifted and

In between water runs, they delivered oxygen bottles

idly north toward Abasand and Beacon Hill. RMWB staff

to a medevac flight at the airport; later, they collected

members living in those areas were told to evacuate; those

abandoned pets and brought them to the fire hall.

living elsewhere were asked to stay.

“That first night, I guess I got about an hour and a

“That afternoon, the fire was approaching the

half of sleep at the South Operations Centre,” Walsh says.

Athabasca River from the south, just across the river

“I slept on a desk with a couple of winter coats as pillow

from where we had moved the equipment to on Sunday

and bed; Norm pulled the bylaw vehicle into the shop

night,” Walsh recounts. “That’s when we got the word to

and slept there.”

move it again, to the wastewater plant near the TaigaNova Industrial Park.”

44

we dropped off a case or two of water.”

increased, and the fire jumped the river and headed rap-

That would be Walsh’s routine for the rest of May, and while his days became more regular as the fire

The move took most of Tuesday afternoon, he says, and

moved on and the town began the long recovery pro-

by that evening the general evacuation of Fort McMurray

cess, life didn’t exactly return to normal. Eventually,

was underway—Highway 63 heading north and south

Walsh’s wife, an accounts payable supervisor with the

out of town was already jammed, and Walsh’s wife and

R MWB who assisted with the Regional Emergency

children were headed to a rural property they owned about

Operations Centre, was asked to relieve others who

two hours south of Fort McMurray.

had been on duty there since the beginning. With no

“From our department, pretty much everyone was

local family support, the couple put their kids on a plane

evacuated with the exception of myself and Norm Sheaves,

to Newfoundland, where they would live with family

one of my foremen,” he says. Once I knew my family was

for pretty much the rest of the summer and even finish

out of town and that they were safe, I stayed. Norm was

out the school year.

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Transit drivers ready to serve

Noticing a missed call on his work cell phone, Hansen

A cohort of up to 60 transit operators and dispatchers

called his supervisor and was advised the transit de-

played key roles in the evacuation of Fort McMurray,

partment was moving its buses from the main barns

but their time in the northern Alberta oilsands city was

on Airport Road to MacDonald Island Park and would

relatively brief.

be supporting the voluntary evacuation of the Gregoire

Most ended up in Lac La Biche, a small town of less

neighbourhood. The afternoon and evening hours were

than 3,000 about 290 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.

consumed moving 80 buses; late in the evening, Hansen

In addition to housing an estimated 8,000–12,000 evac-

manned a small shuttle bus at Gregoire, waiting for evac-

uees, Lac La Biche was the main transition staging area

uees who never showed.

for many thousands more who made their way south to Edmonton, Calgary and other places in Alberta and across Canada.

“I sat there for a couple of hours without a single passenger,” he says. Recalled to transit headquarters, Hansen and a hand-

Transit manager Tony O’Doherty, supervisor Todd

ful of drivers with appropriate licences were asked at

Hansen and drivers/dispatchers Francesco Di Bartolomeo

around two in the morning to help the waste management

and Balwant Nagi were among those who spent sleep-

department move garbage trucks from the landfill, which

less nights the first week of May shuttling evacuees from

by then was being threatened by flames, to the other side

around town to Fort McMurray’s main muster point at

of the city—a 45-minute round trip.

MacDonald Island Park.

“We’d been told there was only five trucks that needed

Hansen, a resident of Fort McMurray for about 30 years,

moving, so we took five guys. When we got there, there

was enjoying a Sunday barbecue with his family in his

were about 20 of these trucks,” he says. “Four drove, a

backyard in the Thickwood neighbourhood when news

fifth shuttled, and by 7:30 that morning [Monday, May 2]

of the fire began filtering out.

we’d moved them all.”

“It was a hot day, and you wanted to be outside,” he

Monday provided a few hours of sleep, and the rest of

says. “We could see a big plume of smoke, but we didn’t

that day was pretty normal. Tuesday started out the same,

really think too much about it. At that time, it was no

although by noon Hansen, O’Doherty, Di Bartolomeo and

big deal.”

Nagi were convinced the situation would change quickly.

Robert Walsh and Norm Sheaves supplied fuel and water to firefighters during the early stages of the disaster.

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45


“By noon, we had been called down to Mac Island, and that afternoon most of us were busy getting supplies to firefighters, evacuating some patients at the hospital to the airstrip at Firebag, north of town, and moving senior citizens down to Mac Island,” Hansen says. “We stayed at Mac Island till about 9 that evening, then got the word to leave there and went back to our shops at Gregoire. By this time the fire had spread to the Thickwood area—Abasand was gone, Beacon Hill was gone, golf course. It was just surreal. You could see the flames dancing in front of you—once you saw the flames, it was real.” Di Bartolomeo was running his regular route on the Tuesday of the evacuation, but that evening was spent running a shuttle service from the downtown area to the bus barns on Airport Road, evacuating people to the muster point. “A couple of my colleagues had lost their homes, and to see that was very painful,” he says. “Normally, I’m the guy that would make positive of the situation, but this was very difficult to find a positive outlook.” By late Wednesday and into Thursday, Fort McMurray was virtually deserted and the transit workers were all regrouped in Lac La Biche, where they quickly took over much of the Apex campground, establishing kitchen facilities and a staging area for the bus fleet. For much of May, the transit department was tasked with a variety of duties, including moving evacuees out to Edmonton, bringing supplies back to Lac La Biche and rotating first responders in and out of Fort McMurray as needed. Occasionally, the department would be put on notice to evacuate nearby communities, and in one instance it managed to put a fleet of 23 buses and support vehicles on the road inside of 10 minutes to evacuate Janvier, 180 kilometres northeast of Lac La Biche on Highway 881. That turned out to be a false alarm. Finally, in late May, much of the department was recalled to Fort McMurray, ahead of the general re-entry, which was set to begin June 1. Once re-entry started, Wood Buffalo established a rudimentary shuttle service to take returning evacuees into opened communities, but it was the middle of July before Hansen, O’Doherty, Di Bartolomeo and Nagi were able to return to any kind of a life resembling normal. A stressful six or eight weeks, to be sure, but an experience that Di Bartolomeo, at least, would not have passed up. “All the females in my family, aunts, my mother, my sisters—they were always telling me to come home. But there was too much to do and an opportunity to help people, and I wasn’t going to pass up that chance. It’s a

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once-in-a-lifetime experience and I can say it happened.

Francesco Di Bartolomeo and around 60 other transit operators helped evacuate the city and then move people to bigger urban centres.

But I never want to go through it again.”

Water treatment plant operators stay behind to keep water flowing for fire fight For 20 days in May, as fire raced through and around Fort McMurray, one of the first questions fire Chief Darby Allen was asked at his daily media briefing was the status of two key facilities in the oilsands city—the airport and the water treatment plant. At various times during the crisis, both locations were virtually surrounded by flames, and their ultimate sur-

the unseasonably warm early spring weather and idly

vival was critical to efforts to save Fort McMurray and

watching the thick plumes of smoke that hung over the

its residents—the former to get folks out, the latter to

city from nearby forest fires—not unusual for the 80,000

provide the nearly 100 million litres per day of water used

residents of the city, located not just in the heartland

by firefighters to protect the city’s homes and businesses.

of Alberta’s oilsands region, but is also in the middle of

For Guy Jette, water treatment manager for the RMWB,

western Canada’s immense boreal forest.

and Travis Kendel, RMWB’s sustainabilities manager, the

Kendel, meanwhile, was 5,500 kilometres away, enjoy-

plant, located just north of the Athabasca River in the

ing the beaches of Hawaii after standing up at a friend’s

Thickwood region of Fort McMurray, was more than a

wedding.

place to work—it was home, it was the office, it was their life for the six weeks the city was empty of residents. May started out quietly enough for both men. Jette spent that first Sunday, May 1, in his backyard, enjoying

BACK FROM THE BRINK

“I had headed out the Friday before, and although I’d heard about the fires, I wasn’t really all that worried,” he says. “We get impacted frequently by forest fires, and this didn’t seem much different.”

47


Not much different, that is, until he checked his phone the day after the April 30 wedding and found nine missed calls. He was on a plane back to Canada the next day. “It took a while,” he says. “I flew to Edmonton, then took a bus to Redwater,” where a colleague was preparing to head back to Fort McMurray. “He picked me up on the side of the highway and off we went.” That last leg—nearly 400 kilometres up Highway 63—was done on May 6, the same day that residents who had initially fled north of the city were being escorted back through Fort McMurray to evacuation centres to the south, mainly Lac La Biche and Edmonton. While Kendel wended his way back from Hawaii, Jette was knee-deep in implementing evacuation plans even before the official general evacuation order was handed down in the early afternoon of Tuesday, May 3. “On that Tuesday, I took a call from our executive director, who asked me to come up with a plan if we needed to evacuate,” he says. “What a skeleton crew would look like, how many, their positions. I walked to the south side of the office building in downtown Fort McMurray and I could see flames.

Guy Jette, water treatment manager for the RMWB, and Travis Kendel, RMWB’s sustainabilities manager, kept the water flowing for firefighters throughout the ordeal.

I gathered the clerical staff, the lab techs, and told them to go home, listen to the radio.” In those early hours of the emergency, the skel-

supplies to feed and water those operators who had stayed

eton crew of operators was evacuated north across

behind. “They’d been going for three days straight, living on

the river to the water treatment plant. There, they

Pop-Tarts and crackers, so I helped round up supplies, tried to

focused their attention on maintaining pressure in

support them the best I could.”

the system so that firefighters would have access to

The routine for both Jette and Kendel was pretty standard

water—not an easy task when radio-based remote

through the first couple weeks of the evacuation—ensuring both

communications with pump stations around the

the water system and the skeleton crew of eight or 10 operators

city were being impacted by the fire.

were able to perform. Most were housed, like many others who

“To dea l w it h t hat, we went around a nd

stayed behind, at the downtown Clearwater Suite Hotel, with

dropped off batter y- operated GPS units and

night shift and day shift workers sharing rooms. Eventually,

swapped those out twice a day when the batteries

they received a little help from outside.

started to run low.”

sure everyone knew what had been done and what needed to be

or less flawlessly, Jette says, even as throughput was

done,” Jette says. “And then, about two weeks in, we got some

pushed from normal levels of 30 million litres per

really good help from the City of Red Deer and from Calgary—

day to 80 million litres per day, and held at those

that really helped us out.”

levels and higher for days on end. Early on, the ul-

With the stresses on the system of running 80 million li-

traviolet disinfection system broke down, triggering

tres of water per day, there were concerns about maintaining

a boil-water advisory that was to last well into the

adequate water levels to fight the fire effectively, Jette says, a

summer. On top of that, chlorination was pushed to

concern that prompted the RMWB to borrow a “very large”

maximum levels to guard against contamination

diesel pump from Syncrude that could pump river water directly

from smoke entering the system, rendering the water

into the distribution system, bypassing treatment entirely.

non-potable. “That really wasn’t an issue—there was nobody left in town to drink the water,” Jette says. Kendel finally made it back to Fort McMurray on May 6, and spent his first day scrounging for

48

“We overlapped our shifts by an hour or so in order to make

But the water distribution system worked more

“We had it set up and ready to go, but I think that created a higher level of motivation on our team because we knew that once we took that step, we’d have a hell of mess in the distribution system to clean up,” he says. “We saw that big green beast sitting on our berm and nobody wanted to push the button.”

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PHOTO: MEL G R ANDJAMB

Members of the Fort Chipewyan Fire Department battle the fire in Fort McMurray.

Lending support FIRST NATIONS COMMUNITIES HELP FIGHT FIRES, WELCOME EVACUEES

When the wildfire entered Fort McMurray and forced over 20,000 people to evacuate to the north, the Fort McKay First Nation, with a population of around 800 located in the heart of the oilsands, jumped to action. The community hosted around 3,000 evacuees in early May before smoke from the fire forced its own evacuation, putting people up in camps, the band hall, the school, the arena, other community buildings and even residents’ own homes. “We needed to find them food, bedding and shelter. Other challenges included taking care of the pets that were left behind, and most of all reassuring people that everything was going to be okay,” Cort Gallup, manager of emergency services, told the Red River Current, the Fort McKay First Nation newsletter. But it went further than that.

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Dustin and Pamela Nokohoo, residents of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, helped evacuees along Highway 881, providing fuel, water and food. The community also opened its doors to host evacuees.

Locals like Candice Fabian opened their homes to evacuees, reports the Current. Fabian and her family took in 29 evacuees, cooked dinner for all of them and managed to house 12 for the night. Additionally, Alberta Health Services ran reception centres out of Fort McKay to help the evacuees, providing medicine and services to those in need. And all this hospitality happened while community members worried about their own loved ones and properties within Fort McMurray, Chief Jim Boucher noted in an open letter to the public released after the smoke cleared. “Many of our own community members own homes and businesses in Fort McMurray that they lost or were forced to leave,” he explained. “Similarly, our administrative staff and those from the companies we own suffered the same heartbreaking losses or were forced to leave.”

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Fort McKay Chief Jim Boucher credits oilsands operators with helping his community throughout the May disaster.

much greater damage and prevented the fire from reaching key infrastructure as well as Fort McKay itself. “From the Canadian public and businesses, there were overwhelming donations to charities and the Red Cross, as well as the provision of food, clothing and accommodation to evacuees,” he adds. Boucher also thanked his oilsands neighbours in a separate open letter. “Whether it was the medical evacuation of a sick child from On May 7, shifting winds resulted in Fort McKay being smoked out and an evacuation order was issued. Chief Boucher has nothing but praise for the massive effort to tame the wildfire and to provide support to the people of Wood Buffalo.

our community, the airlifting in of food and supplies, or the immediate flights to transfer our young and elderly to safety in Edmonton and bring critical staff into Fort McKay, your organizations were there,” he said. “I hope the rest of Canada is aware of your efforts,” he added.

“We experienced an outpouring of generosity and and businesses from across Canada,” he notes. “As a First

Chipewyan Prairie Dene members jump into action

Nation and as part of the Fort McMurray community, we

As people were pushed farther south away from the wildfire

are grateful for this support.”

engulfing Fort McMurray, the residents from the small town

support from individuals, organizations, governments

Boucher singles out first responders and relief agencies for particular praise.

of Janvier, located about 140 kilometres south on Highway 881, were watching and responding.

“While evacuees were fleeing the fire, these emer-

Dustin Nokohoo, a resident of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene

gency workers were moving into the city to protect it,”

First Nation community, felt compelled to hit the highway to

he explains. “Their efforts saved Fort McMurray from

offer help to evacuees who were stranded without fuel, water

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53


and food. He grabbed a work truck that had a 400-L diesel Tidy

With one maintenance man, Pamela and three other women

Tank and as many jerry cans as he could find, and headed out.

from Janvier opened up the wings and, in the first night, opened

During those first few days of the evacuation, Nokohoo made

300 rooms for the first wave of evacuees.

four return trips up and down Highway 881, delivering about 1,000 litres of gasoline and over 500 bottles of water. “I just want to help. I was in a position to help, so I did,” he

‘We need to get all the rooms open. Bottom line, we have to open

says. “I couldn’t stop—I wasn’t going to stop. I just checked

up these rooms. What do we have to do?’” says Pamela. “After

every vehicle along the road, I was in and out, dropping off

we got one wing open and thought we were good, two more

whatever anyone needed, and then down the road again,”

busloads of people would drive up.”

he says. Nokohoo’s effort was just part of the work the Chipewyan Prairie Dene community did during the evacuation.

54

“It started slow, then we thought we should check on Moose Haven. We knew people were coming. We told the camp workers,

Pamela also speaks about how the community members came together to help out. “The youth were amazing, helping cook food until 2:30

“Everyone pitched in; we didn’t worry about how things

in the morning, and then were back in to help at breakfast.

were going to be paid for, we were told to just take what you

People just kept coming with help, with trailers full of sup-

need and we’ll worry about it later,” he says. “People were on

plies,” she says.

the highway with jerry cans, just standing there, giving people

By the second night after Anzac was evacuated, all 700 rooms

enough gas to get to Conklin.” Meanwhile, busloads of people

were full, so residents within Janvier opened their doors and

started showing up at Janvier. Dustin’s wife, Pamela, and other

took people in. After two days, the full scope of the evacuation

women and many youth in the community responded. The

became clear and the people that were in Moose Haven Lodge

band had access to Moose Haven Lodge, a 700-room camp

and Janvier were told to move farther south to Lac La Biche,

located along Highway 881 and about 10 kilometres from their

Edmonton and Calgary. Although there was never an evacuation

community. The camp only had 36 rooms occupied, with the

order for the community, elders and people with health issues

rest of the rooms shut down without bedding, power or heat.

were moved south, just in case.

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PHOTO: DIVERSIFIED TR ANSPORTATION

FOLIO

Members of the Syncrude emergency response team fought the fire for a week.

All in OILSANDS OPERATORS RESPOND TO CALL FOR HELP IN FORT MCMURRAY

The call came out around two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. The Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Abasand, Grayling Terrace and Beacon Hill were being evacuated as the wildfire encroached upon the city. Ten minutes later, a pumper truck with a Syncrude crew on board left the Mildred Lake mine site, headed for battle. “We essentially sent half our department to Fort McMurray,” says Tom Nash, Syncrude’s recently retired fire chief of emergency services. “We supplied above and beyond what was required because that was absolutely the right thing to do for our community.”

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FOLIO

Over the next seven days Syncrude firefighters

“When everyone else was evacuated and even

would work hand in hand with local firefighters

when we shut down the whole plant and all of our

and crews from across Alberta, jumping from

workers were evacuated, our emergency response

neighbourhood to neighbourhood while chasing

teams were working in shifts in town. They never

the flames. At the same time, heavy equipment

left; they were flown out for some time off, but they

operators were busy building firebreaks, clearing

came back in and they continued to operate regu-

trees and brush in the hopes of rerouting the fire

larly through,” adds Syncrude site shift manager

away from buildings and infrastructure.

Roger Hebblethwaite.

The efforts of oilsands operators like Syncrude

“One truck, Pumper 9: it’s such a powerful

in helping bring the fire—dubbed “the Beast”—to

truck that two people can do the work of an entire

heel should come as no surprise. In the minds of

crew and that truck saved a lot of homes, as did

many, Fort McMurray and the oilsands are one

other pumpers from the region that others sent

and the same. Four oilsands operators—Syncrude,

in. That truck was really a flagship, and we’re very

Suncor, Shell, and Canadian Natural Resources

proud of what it did and what our people did,”

Limited—and the Regional Municipal District of

he says.

Wood Buffalo have long had a mutual aid agreement to help each other out in the event of emer-

Shell jumps into action

gencies, and they regularly work together fighting

When the wildfire roared into Fort McMurray,

fires and dealing with emergencies along Highway

Robert Ritchie was being audited. Ironic that the

63. It’s common to see firefighters from one or-

Shell Albian Sands manager of emergency response

ganization working on equipment belonging to

services was being evaluated right as Alberta was

another organization.

heading into a provincial state of emergency, but

But this time was obviously different.

also fortuitous because the two auditors from

“The circumstance was beyond mutual aid,”

Houston had a wealth of emergency response

says Nash.

experience. Ritchie put them to work in Shell’s emergency operations centre to provide support and guidance to the Incident Command System while he went about the business of fighting the wildfire, helping evacuate thousands of people through Shell’s aerodrome and overseeing the medical on-site needs

Syncrude’s Roger Hebblethwaite says the company is proud of the efforts of its firefighting team.

of Fort McMurray residents forced to flee to Albian without their medications. “I became kind of the jack of all trades, helping out in the logistics and operations and planning to make sure everybody was getting what they needed, while looking after my team both on site and off site,” says Ritchie.

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59


Shell’s Robert Ritchie was able to tap into firefighters from the company’s Edmonton, Sarnia and Houston operations to help tame the fire.

Shell initially dispatched a crew of five

Shell then added resources. Now it had

firefighters—a deputy chief in a pickup and

a ladder truck, a pumper with a side-by-

a crew of four on a ladder truck—to Fort

side off-road ATV, a pickup truck and an

McMurray on May 3. They were deployed

aircraft rescue and firefighting apparatus

to various neighbourhoods, but in Grayling

(ARFF)—a large response vehicle that can

Terrace, Shell and Fort McKay crews won a

carry 3,000 gallons of water, 250 gallons

decisive victory. Even as the wildfire dev-

of foam and 500 pounds of dry chemical.

astated the surrounding neighborhoods

A crew of eight people per shift on 12-hour

of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways,

rotations manned the equipment in town for

Grayling Terrace only lost four or five houses.

almost two weeks before relocating north to

“If it wasn’t for the Fort McKay crew and

support Syncrude and Suncor at the Noralta

our crew being there, it may well have been

60

Lodge fire.

all lost,” Ritchie says. “Everybody was in

Not a lot surprises Ritchie, whose career

command of their own groups at the time

spans 22 years of military service and 10

and I commend Fort McKay highly for their

years with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services

professionalism.”

before coming to Shell. But what did sur-

From Grayling Terrace, Shell’s fire crew

prise him was how smoothly the evacuation

was deployed to Timberlea, Parsons Creek

of 80,000 people went this summer in such

and other areas.

a short time.

After battling the fire in Fort McMurray

“There was one tragic incident, unfortu-

for almost 30 hours, Shell’s initial firefighters

nately, but that could have been associated

needed to be replaced. Help was on its way as

with anything and not necessarily the evac-

firefighters arrived from Shell’s Scotford plant

uation,” he notes. “But to move that many

in Edmonton, its Sarnia operation in Ontario,

people without incident, without strife or

and Houston. They hit the ground and relieved

fighting in the streets, that was an amazing

the initial Albian crew the night of May 4.

feat for me to see.”

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“If it wasn’t for the Fort McKay crew and our crew being there, it may well have been all lost.” — Robert Ritchie, manager of emergency response, Shell Albian Sands

Canadian Natural’s Horizon Oil Sands sent crews and equipment while protecting its own plant Bob Slade, fire chief and superintendent of emer-

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gency services for Canadian Natural’s Horizon Oil Sands project, got the call for help from Fort McMurray’s emergency operations centre at 13:58 on May 3. He knows the exact time because he’s that organized. It comes with the territory of running a fire hall with 46 full-time firefighters, advanced life support, medical services and paramedics at an industrial site that produces oil. Slade is a 35-year firefighting veteran who came from British Columbia to work for Canadian Natural in 2013. He immediately sent two trucks—a Class A industrial pumper with four personnel and an ARFF unit with three personnel. “The mobility of the units, with a large volume of firefighting capability, made them very practical for the large, aggressive wildfire in Fort McMurray,” Slade says. Slade dispatched his deputy fire chief to the emergency operations centre in Fort McMurray while he stayed behind, mindful of the need to prudently balance Fort McMurray’s needs with the fire protection and medical service needs of the Horizon facility, which was in full operations. After relieving the initial crews at 11:30 pm on

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career and auxiliary members on 12-hour shifts for the next 18 long days, along with equipment and

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supplies. Horizon fire crews would later be deployed

• Large repair contracts

on May 17 to protect work camp accommodations

• Fleet appraisal

threatened by the moving wildfire north of Fort McMurray. “Our duty officers were able to plan so that our teams were on a 48-hour rotation in our fire hall,” Slade says. “The same team was dispatched

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CNRL’s crews fought the fire for 18 days.

to Fort McMurray every fourth shift, and never back-to-back. This helped sustain well-rested firefighters to work those long shifts.” The fire chief also got a chance to personally survey Fort McMurray’s emergency operations centre and the staging area on a number of occasions. On one of these trips—Tuesday, May 10—he was accompanied by a Canadian Natural vicepresident for a first-hand look at the situation. The city was completely vacated, with charred remains of buildings in some areas and ash-covered houses, businesses and schools in others. “This was very surreal, seeing an entire neighbourhood with cars and trucks in driveways, swing sets in backyards and empty, ash-covered, smouldering foundations, street after street,” Slade

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“This was very surreal, seeing an entire neighbourhood with cars and trucks in driveways, swing sets in backyards and empty, ash-covered, smouldering foundations, street after street.” — Bob Slade, fire chief and superintendent of emergency services, CNRL

says. “The VP was silent for quite a long time, just

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looking at the destruction. This was very difficult to witness.” Shortly after, the fire chief and the vicepresident met up with the Horizon pumper crew in Fort McMurray’s downtown core. The firefighters were just coming off a long night shift of patrolling active fire areas along the city and extinguishing several working fires. “Seeing how much work they got done and all the different crews [working together] was very impressive,” Slade says.

Suncor part of “community response” to fire Clark Esler, Suncor’s manager of emergency regional management, says his company initially sent two fire trucks and nine people on Tuesday when the call came out. Suncor’s firefighting crew sizes and equipment would vary over the coming days, according to what was needed, but being so close to the wildfire raging in Fort McMurray added a layer of complexity to Esler’s decision making. “We also had to assess the potential impacts on the facility and whether we were going to have to shut down the plant and how to ensure the safety of our people. At the same time, all of us were thinking about where our families were in all of this and how to ensure that they were safe,” Esler says.

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“There was no separation. Everyone worked together. It was neighbours helping neighbours.” — Clarke Esler, manager of emergency regional management, Suncor

Suncor’s Clarke Esler says crews from across Canada came together “and acted as one big fire department.”


His efforts were divided across three trajec-

“We have a young lad here who roared up to a

tories: managing his team’s efforts in the fire fight

house that was on fire. It was his brother’s, and he

in Fort McMurray, keeping Suncor’s base plant

couldn’t save it. But all of those people, and obviously

facility safe from the wildfire and overseeing the

not only Suncor’s, continued to push on and continue

evacuation of the thousands of people who had

to do what they had to do for the greater good.”

different points of contact with Suncor facilities.

Athabasca Oil Corporation’s Hangingstone fa-

Reflecting upon the massive effort to save Fort

cility also played a major role in battling the beast,

McMurray from the wildfire this summer, what im-

says Blair Hockley, the company’s vice-president

pressed Esler the most was how all the emergency

of thermal oil.

responders—from industry, local communities and

Although Hangingstone was not operating for

all over Canada—all came together and “acted as

bitumen production, it soon became a key asset

one big fire department.”

for firefighters because of the access it provided

“There was no separation. Everyone worked to-

to a fresh water supply.

gether. It was neighbours helping neighbours,” he

“As the fire progressed we got approached by

says. “Even more amazing—and what was really

the fire marshals, saying, ‘We need access to wa-

critical to making sure the wildfire was brought under

ter.’ A lot of facilities have brackish water, but for

control—was that there were people working in the

us, because it is our first facility, we’re actually

front lines for days and weeks who knew that their

still on fresh,” Hockley says.

houses were gone. And they didn’t stop. There were

“When they asked us, they weren’t aware of

people who actually couldn’t put out the fire on houses

what kind of water volumes we could support.

belonging to people they knew. This was personal.

Obviously, a SAGD facility has significant water

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65


Leismer Aerodrome becomes home base for wildfire battle The president of the Leismer Aerodrome says he has never experienced anything as intense and humbling as he did during the first three weeks of May, when he and his team supported a massive operation of first responders fighting the Fort McMurray wildfires. On top of running the aerodrome for owners Statoil, Cenovus Energy and PTT Exploration and Production, Tom Arisman is operations manager for Statoil’s Leismer SAGD project, located about 120 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. He says he first noticed something was wrong on May 3, when the Fort McMurray airport shut down. “The forestry guys were looking for someplace to stage helicopters and water bombers at our aerodrome, and then that night, around 8:30 or 9, we got notice that Enbridge’s Cheecham pipeline terminal that we pump our oil into was getting ready to evacuate, so that started the ball rolling for us,” Arisman says. Following Statoil’s emergency procedures, he took over as scene commander at the site and engaged Calgary in the response. “Initially, the top priority was our employees and our contractors. Second, as this thing was going on, was providing as much support to the various agencies that were trying to manage the emergency. I’ve got a really good crew here, which really helps make the job easy,” he says. “We ended up with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry using the aerodrome as a base for their operations. They also set up a command centre to manage the planes that were flying in and out of there, and the Canadian military also set up operations at the aerodrome. We provided accommodations at our lodge to 80 people, both forestry and the military. We supported that as best we could.” In the first three weeks of May, Arisman says, the Leismer Aerodrome had 987 more fixed and rotary wing aircraft movements than usual. Throughout the month, the facility refuelled over 320 aircrafts—rather than the usual 60—and used an additional 210,000 litres of fuel. “There were RCMP helicopters, military helicopters, military planes, those big water bombers, little water bombers. It was quite a little air operation that was going on so it really kept our aerodrome hopping, that’s for sure,” he says. “Being involved in the emergency response and getting to know all of these people, meeting a general from the Canadian military, it was humbling. It’s about people helping people. This is a real positive for the province, showing how people pulled together in a crisis situation.”

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capacity, so all of a sudden the synergy of fresh water and lots of capacity became very good. We became essentially the firefighting point for the south front of the fire. That’s why it burned around us.” It wasn’t just that Hangingstone had lots of water available, it was also in a strategic location for firefighters, he says. “It was great that they were protecting our facility, but also it was to make sure that the fire did not cross Highway 63 and get up into the nearby uplands. Then it would have been an uphill fire, which moves very quickly,” Hockley says. “They didn’t want to lose control of it on the west side of Gregoire Lake.” With the help of contractor Horizon North, Athabasca reopened its recently closed 300-bed construction camp for the firefighters and it was filled to capacity. The site also served as a staging area for helicopters and both light and heavy ground firefighting equipment. “It just became a really good combination of we had the facilities and they needed to fight the fire from there to best protect that corner of the fire,” Hockley says.

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The Great Fort McMurray Wildfire Proud to Honour the Heroes at Oilsands Banquet 2016

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It is hard to put into words what it felt like to be the recipients of so much kindness. In our community’s hour of need, the nation stepped up to help. Approximately $3.75 million was donated through the United For Fort McMurray campaign and the Fire Aid for Fort McMurray concert. Those dollars are hard at work supporting the recovery of the social infrastructure. It’s a long road back, but we are well on the way – thanks to you.


Safe haven INDUSTRY HOSTS EVACUEES, LAUNCHES MASSIVE AIRLIFT TO SAFETY

When the exit to the south of Fort McMurray was cut off by flames, oilsands operators and their industrial partners stepped up to the plate, hosting and then helping evacuate tens of thousands of evacuees. Noralta Lodge’s Fort McMurray Village is one of the first significant camp facilities north of the city. With space for 3,500 people between its five lodges, it is a natural muster point for people heading north—a role it was ready to play on May 3 as evacuees fled the city. There was just one small hitch. It was already almost full before evacuees even started arriving.

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Workers were staying at the lodge while partic-

sights in an industrial work camp—were running

ipating in one of several turnarounds at oilsands

through the halls. A woman even gave birth at the

projects in the area. Instead, they found themselves

facility (medical staff from the city were fortunately

taking part in one of the largest mass evacuations

on hand to help out).

in Canadian history.

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Corey Smith, president and chief executive of-

Industrial workers and lodge staff gave up their

ficer of Noralta Lodge, estimates there were over

rooms to tired families. People could be found

5,000 people at Fort McMurray Village at the time,

sleeping on couches or on the floor in rec rooms and

including regular guests, staff and evacuees. Many

common areas. Pets and children—hardly typical

more camped out in the facility’s parking lots. As

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more and more people came looking for shelter,

lodge. It became a community asset

the company began communicating with other

that we could ill afford to lose.”

area lodges to help direct evacuees to facilities with spare room.

Often, the work camps that surround Fort McMurray are seen as out-

“We gained such a cooperative platform with

siders, housing a transient workforce

our competitors in terms of sharing food, access to

with little link to daily city life. But

potable water and wastewater treatment,” Smith

Smith believes this experience has

says. “Although we compete commercially, we

proven their value to the region.

have a true sense of neighbouring community

“We don’t feel like v isitors in

with our fellow lodging suppliers as well. I see

the community,” he says. “We are

that a positive thing for the region, as opposed to

neighbours.”

a competitive threat.” in and began helping move people out on their

Shell scrambles to move people out

private airstrips to make space at the overcrowd-

Shell Albian Sands process operator

ed lodges. Those that were able left in their own

Kathleen Thomson was at home in Fort

vehicles as the route south reopened. But the role

McMurray on Tuesday, trying to get

of the camps was far from over after the first wave

some sleep after seven nights of work-

of evacuees left.

ing, when the phone rang. Her husband

The next day, the oilsands companies stepped

Smith splits his company’s wildfire experience

“He said, ‘Kathleen, don’t panic,

evacuation, Noralta helped out by providing space

but I’m on the golf course and I can

for evacuees and emergency personnel. There were

see flames, so you might want to get

some precautionary evacuations, but the company’s

up and start putting some things to-

facilities were never seriously threatened. That

gether,’” she says.

changed on May 16.

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The couple and their 20-year-old

Winds had shifted, and Fort McMurray Village

daughter packed up two vehicles,

had to be fully evacuated. Smith recalls being told

grabbed their four dogs and joined the

that government models showed the facility being

evacuation that was underway—but they

burned down in four hours.

had to choose whether to head south to

A firebreak bought the company some time,

Noralta Lodge’s president and chief executive officer Corey Smith says during the evacuation the lodge became a “community asset.”

was on the other end of the line.

into two stages. During the first two weeks of the

Edmonton or north to the mines.

and crews rallied to save the building. Municipal,

“He definitely wanted to go south

provincial and industry firefighting crews worked

because he wanted to keep us safe,

together to battle the blaze, with Noralta contribut-

but I just kept thinking, ‘I have to get

ing through the use of privately rented firefighting

to Albian. If everybody’s heading up

equipment. Remarkably, the buildings sustained

there, my skills will definitely come

only minimal smoke and water damage.

in handy.’ I won, obviously, and we

“Without intervention, there’s no doubt in my

headed north. The whole time, both of

mind we would have lost 3,500 rooms. It’s just stuff,

us kind of had that thought that we’re

and it can all be replaced, but I was concerned about

running upstairs in a horror movie, we

the implications on jobs—not only Noralta Lodge

are going in the wrong direction, but I

jobs, but also the people required to put all of the

just couldn’t imagine turning around,”

oil plants back to work,” Smith says. “It wasn’t our

Thomson says.

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The drive north to Albian, which usually takes about one hour, took five.

“We not on ly got t hem out, we fed them, we gave them clothes, we had dog

“When we got to the camp and the doors opened, it was

kennels, we gave them baby seats. It was

nothing short of mayhem—if you can imagine organized

this massive logistical undertaking and we

mayhem. There were people and kids and there were babies

accomplished it with the cooperation of

and there were cats and, oh my goodness, there were dogs.

so many people who weren’t normally in

Everywhere there were dogs. Even ourselves, we had my hus-

those roles,” Thomson says.

band, my daughter, our four dogs, my brother, his wife, their

“I think at the time I didn’t even recog-

four children under six years old and my mother—so we were

nize it as running a team; I was just sort of

contributing to the mayhem,” Thomson says.

part of this mighty bunch of people from

“At first it was a little bit unnerving because Shell has a

every part of the business, just all working

strong, safe, methodical, rules sort of environment, but then

together in this incredibly small, very hot

I kind of realized that we had switched from being a business

office that normally had four people and,

to being a community safe haven.”

generally, we had 10, 12, 15 in it at all times.

The Albian Village camp was out of rooms when Thomson’s

“Literally, lives were on the line at this

family arrived, but a maintenance crew she works with gave

point. The fire was still threatening, it was

up their rooms and slept on coveralls in their shop for the next

still moving quite quickly north, so we just

couple of nights so that her family could have beds.

were totally focused on the goal of getting

“That was our first emotional moment,” she says.

people out and getting people out safely

After settling in, at about midnight Thomson and her daugh-

without a whole lot of concern for procedure

ter were wide awake and looking for some way to help—they

and pomp and circumstance.”

started by relieving Albian staff running a refreshment table

On the Friday, as another team was

set up in the camp lobby. At about 4 a.m., a senior manager

starting to take over, Thomson and others

emerged looking for people to help with evacuation flights, a

went out on buses to help people who were

task Thomson eagerly accepted.

in outlying camp facilities.

She took scope of what was happening and started managing

“A lot of them had been, for lack of a better

the flight list while some logistics people in the room from

term, abandoned. They had no way to leave,

Calgary set things up. When the organizers left on flights first

they had no vehicles, they had flown up there

thing in the morning, Thomson ended up running the operation.

but they weren’t able to get on flights for

Over the next four days, Shell flew out 9,800 people on about

whatever reason, so we went on Diversified

80 flights.

buses and picked people up, on-boarded them and brought them into our airport.” But it was getting harder for Thomson to be in the midst of the wildfire.

Shell Albian Sands process operator Kathleen Thomson helped evacuate 8,900 people who fled north from the fire.

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“I have asthma, and obviously in a situation like that it was getting a little out of control. When we woke up Saturday morning

73


CNRL’s Chad Beaton and his team flew out 2,700 people in a 16-hour period.

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there was a thick layer of brown, acrid smoke and so my husband didn’t give me an option at that point— he said, ‘Pack your stuff, we’re leaving,’” she says.

CNRL’s Chad Beaton and team help others evacuate while keeping wary eye on the fire Chad Beaton was the senior manager on call at Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s Horizon Oil Sands mine when the news came in that Fort McMurray was being evacuated. Located 75 kilometres north of the community, Horizon was not in immediate danger, but it wasn’t long before the municipality was calling for firefighting support and evacuees were arriving at the door. Unlike the region’s four other mining projects,

“The people that were coming, they were coming with everything. Babies, families, friends, animals. We did whatever we could to look after all of the people who were coming to our site.” — Chad Beaton, senior manager, CNRL

Horizon was able to keep operating and to continue construction on a major expansion throughout the fire risk. But while workers kept the trucks and shovels running, they also helped protect the safe-

“Some of these guys, they had no idea where

ty of thousands of evacuees, nearby First Nations

they were in relation to this fire because we fly

communities and area work camps.

them in. They just knew that they were near Fort

First on Beaton’s mind were Horizon employees.

McMurray and there is a fire,” he says.

“One of the first things we did was send out

“Our biggest issue was just to communicate

an email to all of our staff saying if you live in

clearly and effectively so that they understood

Fort McMurray and you’ve been evacuated, come

that we were looking out for them, we’re going

north. Come to our site. We’ll do what we can with

to take care of them and we’re going to ensure

the resources we have, we’ll take care of you, just

their safety, and it was a very difficult task to

come here.”

do that.”

The vast majority of Horizon workers do not live in Fort McMurray and are flown in and out of

Beaton was receiving the same worried calls from home as his employees.

the site using the company’s aerodrome—a facility

“The location of Horizon and the prevailing

that thousands of Wood Buffalo residents passed

winds and all those things kind of aligned us to

through as they escaped the blaze.

be on an island of our own, very secure and safe,

“In the period between Tuesday to Wednesday

but you can imagine if your family was calling and

[May 3–4], I think we received somewhere around

saying you’ve got to get out of there...I was getting

3,500 people on our site and we flew out I believe

it from my mom, my sisters, my wife, my kids. It’s

2,700 in that 16-hour period, between Calgary and

like, no, I mean, we’re playing baseball tonight.”

Edmonton,” Beaton says. “The people that were coming, they were coming with everything. Babies, families, friends, animals. We did whatever we could to look after all of the people who were coming to our site.” Beaton’s team also did its best to maintain calm among the people working at the site, which he admits wasn’t easy.

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Canadian Natural gave employees the option to be flown out if they felt unsafe, Beaton says, and about 50 people took the company up on it. “I could see where they were coming from and I don’t blame those guys and ladies for leaving. If you don’t know where you are, it could be pretty scary.” On the Friday after the fire started there was a point where it did get scary at Horizon for a few

75


Suncor Energy director of transportation, travel and strategy Fauzia Lalani says her company managed to move out 10,000 people over a 24-hour period.

hours, Beaton says, as the wind changed and the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see. At that point the company picked up elders from Fort McKay and evacuated them using the aerodrome when they got the window to fly. As the closest project to Fort McKay, the company was already working with the community to make sure residents had food, water, shelter and medication. In addition to its own resources, Canadian Natural distributed supplies to Fort McKay that had been sent by the federal government via Hercules aircraft to Horizon. The whole experience was surreal and had many ups and downs, Beaton says, but included some positives in the end. “Devastating as the fire was, there were some really good learnings and some really good work established by everybody working together,” he says, referencing work with other industry players as well as government and communities. “You don’t really train for this, you train for more of a process upset, but it’s an emergency and

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S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


the basis is the same so all that hard work and all that training that everybody used to complain about, it worked. And that’s how it happens.”

Suncor moves out 10,000 people in 24 hours Suncor Energy director of transportation, travel and strategy Fauzia Lalani was in a meeting in Calgary on May 3 when her smartphone rang. The person on the other end of the line said the wildfire that had caused the cancellation of her planned flight to Fort McMurray the day before had jumped the Athabasca River. “I’m going to myself, ‘Fires don’t jump rivers. What does that mean, and how could it be possible?’ I called my boss and I said, ‘I think we need to stand up the RMT [response management team]. Let’s be ready just in case,’” says Lalani, who served as incident commander of Suncor’s RMT after it was activated to support the wildfire response. “At first we really thought it was about being ready for potentially helping a few people who might get impacted, and then pretty soon we realized that it was much bigger than that.” The entire city was being evacuated, and just 25 kilometres to the north, Suncor was going to be the first major gathering point for people who could not move south. The company has access to several camp facilities, including its own lodges and those contracted from third parties, and they filled up quickly. “We had over 10,000 rooms that we have direct access to. Normally, one room would have one person who happens to be working on our site, but we ended up opening the rooms to families. One room ended up having two people, four people or more. And then the lobbies, the kitchens, the cafeterias, they all were converted into impromptu areas for people to sleep, eat, whatever they required,” Lalani says. “That’s also the number that we then ended up actually flying out from our Firebag aerodrome on our planes as well as the many charters that we were able to procure immediately.” On the night of May 3, the intensity of the fire risk was still uncertain. “That first night, we thought we’d be okay. The actual evacuation happened on May 4, once the firefighters made a determination that this was

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Diversified’s staff worked tirelessly to keep people moving during the evacuation Following the mass evacuation of Fort McMurray, the employees and managers that stayed behind at Diversified Transportation’s headquarters on the north side of the city faced an exhausting—and sometimes frightening—ordeal in the long nights that lay ahead. From the windows, everyone who remained at the bus company’s command centre could see Abasand and Beacon Hill burn. Protected from stray embers by the building’s steel-clad exterior, Diversified staff directed their fleet to move people to safe havens away from the city and sent buses through evacuated areas to pick up stragglers. Outside in the yard, chunks of burning trees as large as a pair of work boots would drop from the sky, recalls director of health, safety and environment Jude Groves, who was stationed at the facility at the time. “We made the educated decision that we were probably in the safest possible location given what we had to do,” he says. And there was much to do in those early days of the evacuation, according to Joel Trudell, director of operations. Phones were ringing non-stop with requests for buses from the company’s regular clients and the municipality. The Diversified crew camped out at the facility for two days, raiding desks for food and grabbing 15-minute naps here and there, using bundles of shoe covers for pillows. “Our employees reported to work with their families and left their families here for us to take of, knowing that we needed to support the community and move people,” Groves says. By midnight of the first day of the evacuation, six buses filled with around 300 Diversified employee family members had been sent to Edmonton—part of the 20 buses sent there on May 3, with many more to follow in the coming days. Among the challenges faced by the company was ensuring its sizable fleet of buses was not caught in the wildfire’s path at any point. In between runs on the first night of the evacuation, employees moved buses at company headquarters into the yard, spacing them apart so that all of them didn’t burn if one caught fire. Some buses were stationed at various camps north of the city, while others were moved from the Fort McMurray location to an industrial park farther south, and eventually to Lac La Biche and Edmonton. Despite some tense moments, not a single bus was lost. “It was a well-considered chess game, but it was close,” Groves says. After the initial evacuation, Diversified worked around the clock to shuttle evacuees from the camps to the local airport and oilsands aerodromes. Less than a week after the evacuation, there was an abortive attempt to restart some oilsands plants, and the company brought in workers—only to quickly move them out once again as the fire began to threaten their safety. Later on, Diversified helped bring workers and the rest of the public back to the city once it reopened. Diversified’s employees worked a total of 65,000 hours and provided 46,000 person-trips during the evacuation and remobilization. From May 3 to June 6, its buses travelled a combined 833,110 kilometres while helping people evacuate or returning them to the community. But some of the impacts on the company and its employees cannot be quantified. “This is a situation that tests individuals. Everyone gets stretched to the limits, and you really find out what you’re made of as a person, as a company and as a manager,” says Trudell. “I’m proud of everyone who went through this.”

“Remarkably, we were able to evacuate all those people in around 24 hours. If you were to ask me today to do the math on that, I’m not sure I could quite do it, but somehow we managed to do it.” — Fauzia Lalani, director of transportation, travel and strategy, Suncor Energy

out of control and they wouldn’t be able to get it under control.” At first, the airlift seemed like an almost impossible feat. “I was asked to come back with a realistic proposal in terms of how long it would take to get 10,000-plus people out. Most planes only hold about 100 people, so we kind of started doing the math—it’s going to be about three to five days.... I don’t think we have that kind of time,” she says, crediting the creativity of “some amazing people” for what happened next. “We started loading buses. We were able to work with Transport Canada to arrange what is called manifesting in the air, which was a one-time exemption. The buses just drove up right next to the airplanes and people got on, bags were loaded and the planes took off, literally in circles, one right

Diversified drivers who worked through the evacuation. Front row (left to right): Jama Abdi, Danielle Lutwick, Tannis Wilson, Lori Astley, Ervin Nippard, Maribeth Wilson. Back row (left to right): Liban Osman, Rodney McDonald, Jude Groves, Gary Wik, Joel Trudell, Abdulkadir Abdi, Sheeraz Hassan, Tim Dyck.

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after another. “Remark ably, we were able to evacuate all those people in around 24 hours. If you were to ask me today to do the math on that, I’m not sure I could quite do it, but somehow we managed to do it.”

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As Suncor was working on the airlift evacuation, Lalani says a colleague in the RMT raised an important point about keeping full families together. “She said, ‘You know, when Katrina happened, one of the things that really hurt people was that they had to abandon their pets. You need to think about the pets because for those of us who have pets or are pet lovers, they are no different than our children.’ And so we had to quickly think through how we were going to do that, and with partnerships both internally and externally were able to procure the right contraptions, if you will, for some of them,” she says. This included dogs, cats, pot-bellied pigs, ferrets, fish, rabbits and more. “You name it, we had it, and we accommodated all of them. I think for a family that is going through that kind of trauma, particularly the children for whom the pets are their lifeline, I think that is probably one of the best things that we did, and it is so much in line with Suncor values about respect and dignity.”

Like an atomic bomb cloud On May 3, about 50 kilometres south of Fort McMurray at t he Japa n C a n ada O i l S a nd s L i m ite d ( JACOS) Hangingstone SAGD project, peak construction was underway on a major capacity expansion when smoke took over the sky. “Looking from our site towards Fort McMurray, it was like an atomic bomb cloud was coming up from the north,” says Bob Jackson, manager of the Hangingstone expansion construction site. Most JACOS workers fly in to the facility and live in camp, he notes, but the small percentage that live in Fort McMurray had caught wind of the fire encroaching on their community. “They went into town to assess the situation and got caught right in the middle of the complete firestorm and the full evacuation that was underway.” The primary concern for JACOS became making sure those workers were looked after, Jackson says. “We kept track of where they were going and what Over the first two days, JACOS provided gas to Fort McMurray evacuees escaping south toward Edmonton and offered shelter to those who wanted it. About 1,000 people were still at the site working, and as the situation progressed it became more difficult to keep everything calm, Jackson says.

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© 2016 Halliburton. All Rights Reserved.

support they needed as we moved forward.”

We join the community in thanking first responders.

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Bob Jackson, manager of the JACOS Hangingstone expansion construction site, helped support Alberta Emergency responders who set up at their site.

“You could see it as it slowly spread over the next two to three days and we were trying to keep people focused and working, but our safety was becoming a major concern due to the lack of awareness and the attention that was being focused on the fire, not on work.” At the same time, Alberta emergency responders had set up a staging area in the Hangingstone security parking lot. “They were told to back off from the fire based on the speed and intensity of it,” Jackson says. “They held back and we supported them there for two days while they staged there, with their vehicles and their people ready to respond in case any of the first responders that were in fighting the fires required any kind of assistance medically.” After a camp JACOS was using near the community of Anzac was evacuated on May 5, the

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Ledcor employees have an evacuee relief convoy set up before their bosses are even at work

company made the decision to shut down the construction site. The existing SAGD project, which started operations in 1997, was already in the process of being shut down before the fire due to economic conditions. “We evacuated over 1,000 people that day and it went very well. We had buses pre-arranged that came and took everybody out that was in camp and everybody offsite, and had the whole site completely accounted for and heading to Edmonton within an hour,” Jackson says. Everybody but him, that is, and three colleagues. “There were only four of us who were left here to keep the site safe and secure and to stay in communication with the regional emergency oper ations centre and just maintain vigilance monitoring the air in case there was an air quality concern,” he says, adding that thanks to favourable winds, that never happened. The four JACOS staffers consulted with firefighters and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry on how to better protect the construction site, which has an estimated capital cost of $1.8 billion. “We brought in a contractor and we opened up a bunch of firebreaks around our site and our gathering lines to ensure if the fire did come this way, we could minimize the damage,” Jackson says. His team was eventually evacuated from the JACOS camp they were at, but were able to find

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Ledcor’s modular fabrication yard in Nisku, Alta., has never been busier. Located just south of Edmonton, the facility is currently in the midst of several major contracts, including the Sunrise gas plant and the Fort Hills oilsands project. Every day, 1,000 workers and 150 managers head to the site. Some arrive as early as 6 a.m. Still, construction manager Boyd Mahon was a little surprised to receive a call from the site at 6:30 a.m. on May 4, before he had even arrived for work. One of his general superintendents, Eric Reese, planned to form a supply convoy for Fort McMurray evacuees. He was going to use a few company trucks, and just wanted to let the boss know. “He had been watching the news,” Mahon says. “It was bothering him, and he thought we have a pretty close connection to Fort McMurray. Many of our guys have spent a lot of their careers there. Many of our people have family there.” It was to be a grassroots effort, driven by workers on the ground. Reese recruited nine co-workers to help out: Eugene Murphy, Ken Basiuk, Jennifer Walker, Stephanie King, Mike Cunningham, Steven Campbell, Nathan Wylie, Matthew Segboer and Hayden Chies. “They realized we had all the equipment and resources, and knew we were going to support them, so they started packing and then asked for permission when the management team woke up,” Mahon laughs. The group did a supply run at Costco, purchasing everything out of their own pockets (Ledcor later helped cover their costs). They also packed extra tools and equipment—such as extension cords, small generators and winches—in case they encountered any broken-down vehicles along the way. By 10 a.m., they were heading north. They went as far as Anzac, where they dropped off some water for first responders before turning around to help evacuees. Stocked with food, water and fuel, they would stop at rest areas and set up impromptu resupply stations. Over the course of the trip, they handed out two pallets of water, 3,000 protein bars, 600 gallons of diesel and 150 gallons of gasoline. During their journey, the convoy would encounter Ledcor workers from the company’s highway division. They may have been strangers to each other, but the familiar blue globe of the Ledcor logo on the side of their trucks linked them. Once the road crews learned what their Nisku colleagues were doing, they were eager to offer their own extra fuel reserves to allow the convoy to continue providing refills to stranded drivers. “Right now, I could not tell you where some of the other Ledcor divisions are working or what manpower they have,” Mahon says. “But that’s the power of the blue globe. Once you see it, it sucks you in.” The tired group returned to Nisku at around 3 a.m. on May 5 to drop off the trucks before heading home. Yet, they were soon back at the yard for their regular shifts, if a little later than usual—by perhaps an hour or two. “If you see what our yard looks like and what these guys do, you get a sense of why it was easy for them to concentrate their efforts and in four hours mobilize a group of people with five pieces of equipment and make a difference,” Mahon says. “Because of the speed and enormity of the effort they undertake every day, they’re built for it.”

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82

Jackson and his colleagues did more than just protect

the fire at times from the roof of the JACOS project ad-

the facility—they also reached out to help evacuees where

ministration building.

they could.

“Every day, you could see how the fire expanded and the

“We’ve got a lot of safety awards like shirts and blan-

amount and the speed of the fire. We could look straight

kets that were surplus. About six days into it we heard that

north, which is where Fort McMurray is located, and slowly

evacuation centres in Lac La Biche were short of supplies,

the whole quadrant from straight north to straight east

so one of our employees loaded up all the surplus safety

was completely filled. We just couldn’t believe what was

shirts and these blankets that we had and went down there.

going on and it was so close to us, yet we were still in a

The reception we received from the evacuation centre and

safe zone due to the winds.”

the people working there—it was an amazing feeling.”

PHOTO: G OVERNMENT OF A LBERTA

rooms at other facilities farther south. They watched

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FOLIO

Safety valve OILSANDS PLAYERS SHUT DOWN

Shutting down a massive oilsands mine or thermal facility is no

OPERATIONS, THEN RESTART,

easy task, but when the Wood Buffalo wildfire began threatening

WITHOUT A HITCH

oilsands operations, that’s exactly what many operators were forced to do.

PHOTO: ATHABASC A OI L CORP

Over one million barrels per day were taken offline during the May emergency, but in a testament to the skill of the operators, that production was back on stream by early summer. Roger Hebblethwaite, a site shift manager with Syncrude for the past 36 years, was getting ready to board a plane back to his job on Friday, May 6, when he got the news Syncrude was shutting in production.

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85


Fire approaching Athabasca’s SAGD facility.

“Originally, when I first got called, that was before we made the decision to shut down. I was actually going to fly in and relieve one of the operations managers. When I didn’t get the phone call and I phoned in to find out why I me that the decision was made to shut down,” he says. “What’s unique about this is it’s the first time since we started up our operations in 1978 that we had a complete shutdown of our plant.” It was not a decision made lightly, Hebblethwaite says. “It took a lot of coordination within the operation to make sure that we clearly communicated in order to shut

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S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A

PHOTO: ATHABASC A OI L CORP

wasn’t going to be on the plane, that’s when they informed


down the entire operation and to keep the focus on the safety of our personnel. You have to remember that by then, we had a number of people who had been here for a number of days and those folks also had been evacuated, so every person is an evacuee. We had to make sure that we focused on how to safely shut down all the units. They all have to be shut down in a certain order; you can’t just shut them all down.” As challenging as the shutdown was, the restart was even tougher. Hebblethwaite was part of a team mobilized at Syncrude’s Edmonton offices to coordinate a process that had not been executed for almost 40 years.

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87


Syncrude reported record production in August, just three months after the shutdown.

“If you think about the energy that went into starting up Syncrude the first time, it would have taken months and years to put a plan together and then it would have been executed over the course of months. We put a plan together over the course of a couple of weeks and then we embarked on our start-up.�

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“We started up 40 operating plants one-time, which means we did it right the first time, 40 times.” — Roger Hebblethwaite, shift manager, Syncrude

On May 10, Syncrude landed three people on site

On behalf of all of us at Celebration Homes, we would like to express our heartfelt thanks to the first responders of Wood Buffalo for their heroic efforts this past summer.

who, equipped with breathing packs, inspected all the units to prepare for the restart. “I’ve spoken to them and they said it was a pretty amazing feeling when the three of them were the only people on the Mildred Lake site,” Hebblethwaite says. Syncrude began repopulating its site with staff, but on May 15 it had to re-evacuate due to the fire risk. The workers were soon able to return, and the

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restart began in earnest. “We started up 40 operating plants one-time, which means we did it right the first time, 40 times,” he says. “These kinds of things don’t just happen. I

wilbert.ca

couldn’t be more proud of the people who work here at every level of the organization. People came together and we restarted this place for the first time since 1978. There are people who have experiences that they will never forget, and not just the evacuation…in the industry, to restart a plant like this from cold makes you proud to be involved.” Hebblethwaite says Syncrude achieved a record month of production in August, just three months after the milestone shutdown. A s t he v ice-president of t her ma l oi l for Athabasca Oil Corporation, Blair Hockley has been working with his team for the last five years to get the company’s first SAGD project up and running just south of Fort McMurray. Hangingstone achieved first oil in July 2015,

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a rare and recent example of an oilsands project coming to fruition in the hands of a junior producer. Ten months later, it became one of only two

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facilities to face “the Beast” head on. The 12,000-barrel-per-day project came out safely on the other end, in part thanks to “an

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excellent synergy” that helped firefighters get on top

guys are on the front lines.... We started shutting down

of the flames while maintaining the safety of the com-

the plants at about 10:30 in the morning, and by about

pany’s equipment and infrastructure.

5:30, the guys at the site were gone,” Hockley says.

“We watched the fire right from May 1 when it happened, and its very rapid growth,” Hockley says.

“We had the time to actually shut the facility down in a reasonable fashion.”

“When the fire really moved to the southwest towards

Operators were able to return to the site during the

Nexen on May 4 was the night that it became very real

day but were required to leave it at night, which he says

for us, because the fire not only moved to the southwest

led to a lot of sleepless nights.

but it expanded south, which basically brought us into the path.”

“We would come back in the morning kind of hoping that the facility was there, which was tough.”

The fire was coming right toward the new facility, and the team started planning to shut down. Because of the project’s close proximity to Fort McMurray, it was not a stop for evacuees as they raced south.

Facilities were back up and running, producing bitumen on May 19, and he says the production ramp-up has returned to its pre-fire build. Capacity is expected to be reached in early 2017. “It was a challenging time for it to happen, but it went

“The morning of May 6, we basically had our teams

about as well as it possibly could have,” Hockley says. “I

in place and were mentally prepping for shutdown.

think what really came through is that the operations

They had had conversations with the fire marshals at

teams are incredibly competent and ready for a thing that

the time who said potentially, within 24 hours, you

I would say surprised us.”

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i2-CAPP-EC-COMMITMENT-WBC-HP-H-2016-11-EN2.indd 1

2016-11-15 12:32 PM S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


DESTROYED STRUCTURES

Single-family homes:

Condo and apartment units:

1,820

GOVERNMENT

Commercial properties:

600

15

Demolition orders issued: Average cost of a demolition order:

2,571

Cost of the Disaster Relief Program:

$452 million

$647 million

from the federal government

Loss in GDP

0.6%

Rise in Employment Insurance beneficiaries in Fort McMurray:

141.6%

$14,000

The damage HOW EXPENSIVE IS A 589,553-HECTARE WILDFIRE?

INSURED DAMAGE

After ripping through and destroying nearly 10 per cent of the city, the Fort McMurray wildfire stacked up as the costliest disaster in Canada’s history,

Fort McMurray wildfire

$3.58 billion

Southern Alberta floods

$1.72 billion

Slave Lake wildfire

$700 million

more than doubling the insured damage in the southern Alberta floods of 2013 (overland flooding is not traditionally included in insurance policies). Here is a look at some of the numbers behind those costs.

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INSURANCE CLAIMS

Personal property

Total insurance claims:

44,000

Commercial insurance

Auto insurance

Claims:

Average claim:

Percentage of insured damage

27,000

$81,000

62%

Claims:

Average claim:

Percentage of insured damage

5,000 $250,000

Claims:

Average claim:

12,000

$15,000

33%

Percentage of insured damage

5%

done Sources: Catastrophe Indices and Quantification, Government of Alberta, Insurance Bureau of Canada, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

OILSANDS

Total production loss:

Average daily production loss:

1.5 million bbls/d

Reduction in oil exports in 2016

Cost of production loss:

4% BACK FROM THE BRINK

40 million barrels

$1.4 billion 93


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Slow and steady BUILDERS PACE THEMSELVES FOR MARATHON REBUILDING PROCESS

By any measure, the rebuild of Fort McMurray is a megaproject on the scale of an oilsands development. The devastating fire set a new record as the largest insured loss in Canadian history, eclipsing 2013’s $1.7-billion southern Alberta floods. The Insurance Bureau of Canada’s most recent estimate has placed the cost of insurance claims from the fire at $3.58 billion. Like any megaproject, the rebuild of the oilsands capital could go well or not so well. But if any place understands megaprojects, it’s Fort McMurray. There is an opportunity to apply some of the industry’s hard-won lessons in collaboration, planning and best practices to the task of rebuilding.

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A lot still needs to be sorted out before construction can

“One of the biggest challenges will be builders tripping over each other if there is no coordination or logical progress.”

begin. The insurance industry, which plays a central role in this project, is a machine that runs according to its own rules and regulations. And some of those rules could limit how efficiently builders can reconstruct neighbourhoods.

— Russell Dauk, vice-president of land development, commercial projects and property management, Rohit Land Development

One of the lessons from other disasters, such as the Slave Lake fire in 2011 and the 2013 floods, is that the faster a community is rebuilt, the better it is for residents who are less likely

different builders working for 10 different insurance com-

to then leave for other places. Initial meetings between the

panies trying to rebuild that block,” Dauk says.

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), builders and

In tight neighbourhoods, the issue of builders trip-

other stakeholders reflect a community that has pulled together

ping over each other is compounded. In the absence of

and wants a speedy recovery, says Russell Dauk, vice-president of

coordination, logistics will likely get tangled. A concrete

land development, commercial projects and property manage-

truck pouring a foundation could block access to dump

ment with Rohit Land Development and the former municipality

trucks or deliveries of roof trusses. Where builders need to

manager of planning.

place materials on vacant sites, this free-for-all scenario

The fire destroyed about 2,400 structures, 1,600 of which were

of every builder for himself will cause more problems

residential homes, while leaving most of the infrastructure intact.

and further erode construction efficiencies. It would be

In past years, Fort McMurray built 1,000–2,000 homes a

similar to a SAGD owner contracting with a different en-

year on a regular basis. Houses took five to six months to build,

gineering company and a different driller and a different

multi-family residences took a year. So in theory, using the

service provider for every new well pad and leaving the

numerous stock home designs builders have on file that just

scheduling up to each contractor.

need a stamp of approval from the municipality, Fort McMurray could be back up and running in as little as one year. “The last time we were building 1,000–2,000 homes a year in Fort McMurray, the construction industry in Edmonton was

rebuild my half of the house?’ Well, generally we build both sides of the duplex at the same time,” Dauk says.

red-hot, Calgary was red-hot, Cold Lake was red-hot, Red Deer

So rather than six months to rebuild a home, Dauk

was red-hot. It’s the opposite now. There’s plenty of labour

says that builders working around each other may need

capacity in Edmonton and Calgary that would welcome the

nine to 12 months to do the same job. This schedule then

opportunity to get back to work right now,” Dauk says.

could bump into cold-weather months that prevent the

But theory isn’t practice. In her remarks upon the return of the first evacuees to Fort McMurray in June, Premier Rachel

pouring of foundations or other cement work, further stretching timelines.

Notley warned that Fort McMurray would “take years, not

A simple remedy to many of the potential construction

weeks” to rebuild. The Conference Board of Canada also esti-

inefficiencies in rebuilding Fort McMurray is collabora-

mates that work will last till 2019.

tion. It’s an increasingly important concept in the oilsands

Why so long? Construction chaos.

industry, where project owners, contractors and stake-

“One of the biggest challenges will be builders tripping

holders engage early in the process to identify the best

over each other if there is no coordination or logical progress,”

way for the project to progress efficiently. It is recognized

Dauk says.

by groups including the Construction Owners Association

In residential development, a handful of builders buy blocks of land and coordinate construction with each other in order to achieve “factory operation” efficiencies, Dauk says. Planning and orderly progress through the building stages is essential

of Alberta as a key strategy to improve the competitiveness of the industry as it navigates the new oil era. Collaboration will also help an efficient rebuild of the oilsands city.

to achieving the lowest construction costs and timely delivery.

“Building is not hard unless you make it hard,” Dauk

Everything is planned: the placement of excavated basement

says. “Insurance companies need to realize that if they

dirt, where framing materials are placed, the progression of

have half a duplex, they need to find who has the other

trades moving through the project and so on.

half of the duplex and who has all the units on the street,

“The problem that we have in Fort McMurray is that every-

96

“We’ve even had a couple customers come to us and say, ‘I love the half duplex I bought from you. Can you

and maybe coordinate the reconstruction.

body has their own insurance, so now, on that same block of

“If one company built a row of homes before, why

duplexes, instead of having one builder working according to

not contact the same builder to rebuild those homes? If

a systematic approach, you have 30 guys working under seven

you want efficiency and cost-effectiveness, insurance

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companies should be getting together, reviewing these

Rebuilding the city will take years, according to Premier Rachel Notley.

things and having serious conversations with their customers in order to progress logically.” Is that happening? No. And it won’t happen, according to Heather Mack, director of government relations with the Insurance Bureau of Canada. “Because we would all end up in jail,” she says jokingly. “But the federal Competition Act actually prohibits a lot of that sort of coordination. It would be great and would probably even be great for the customers, but they just cannot do that.”

An interesting idea that could speed up the reconstruction of Fort McMurray is land swaps. The municipality has land

Under Alberta’s insurance act regulations, the home-

that escaped fire damage and is ready for development. In this

owner also has the right to choose vendors. Insurers can

scenario, homeowners would swap their debris and ash-covered

suggest a builder or contractor to help expedite recon-

land for clean land so as to start building right away, saving

struction but, if a homeowner has someone else in mind,

three to four months and, in some cases, winter delays.

it’s his or her decision, which potentially adds players to an already crowded playing field.

Again, this is unlikely to happen—unless it’s part of the insurance contract. “There are insurance companies that do

On the positive side, Mack says that a number of in-

allow that through their insurance policy,” Mack says. “Some

surance companies have independently chosen to hire the

insurers have specialty products for exactly that type of sit-

same project manager, which should help in coordinating

uation. But generally, unless it’s a decision of the province or

contractors, “but that’s about as close as you can get to

the municipality not to allow some properties to be rebuilt, it’s

working collaboratively.”

probably unlikely that an insurer would agree to a land swap.

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97


That’s because the insurance policy is actually a contract between the insurer and the homeowner, and going outside that contract would be very difficult.” Amending insurance contracts, however, may become necessary in Fort McMurray’s Athabasca River flood plain. After the 2013 southern Alberta floods, the province banned building in flood plains, but exempted Drumheller and Fort McMurray because of their well-established flood plain communities. Now that some of Fort McMurray’s flood plain neighbourhoods have been razed by fire, it’s a different situation. At the end of June, the RMWB established a committee to work through its flood plain and other land issues. No decisions have yet been made, it told Oilsands Review. Flood plain land swapping will likely not be an easy decision to make, considering that it will require the involvement of the municipal and provincial governments, insurance companies and homeowners. So while the potential for collaboration and out-of-thebox thinking exists for reducing costs and timelines in the Fort McMurray reconstruction megaproject, many things still need to be sorted out. Even then, builders will likely have to do without any higher-level planning of their work.

Local contractors ready for action For nearly four years, Shawn Chaulk had been enjoying a relaxed semi-retirement from his Fort McMurray building company. Then the wildfires hit. Now he’s working 70 hours a week in his role as president and owner of Stratford Homes. His dreams of retirement have been put on hold for at least three years as his business works through the unprecedented backlog of new home requests. Before May, Stratford employed maybe a half-dozen carpenters and another 15–20 subtrades. Since returning to the city, Chaulk has 100 more people working under his banner—and that’s mostly just doing cleanup and repairs. The real work of rebuilding has scarcely even begun. It’s hard to underestimate the magnitude of this job for small and medium-sized builders like Stratford, which in a normal year does anywhere between $2 million and $10 million in business, Chaulk estimates. In the first 10 weeks since returning to the city after the fire, he had already booked more work than in the past two years combined. Crashing oil prices had effectively put the local housing market into hibernation in recent years, but the city’s builders now find themselves in a world that very much resembles past boom times. According to a Canada Mor tgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) report, Fort McMurray lost 10 per cent of its structures, a total of 1,928, including single and multi-family buildings. In 2015, there were just 74 housing starts—the lowest level since 1997. With just 13 units started before May, this year was hardly looking

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There are around 5,000 homes that were damaged, on top of the 1,600 totally destroyed by the fire.

any better. Instead, the CMHC is now predicting new home

neighbourhoods—Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways—could

construction in Fort McMurray will hit the highest levels

find themselves surrounded by cleanup as their new home goes

seen in 20 years.

up. Dirt and debris will find their way into the building, and

But the rebuild has to begin with one home, and it belongs to Darrin Eckel, president and owner of Vis-Star Homes. Located in the Wood Buffalo area, the bi-level house is

crews may even need to wear respirators as they work. It is hardly an environment amenable to creating a good quality finished product.

divided into two rental suites. Eckel, as both the home-

Will people be willing to wait two years to start building a

owner and builder, was able to push forward the cleaning

home? Unfortunately, they may have no choice. There is simply

of the site and quickly line up everything he needed for

not enough building capacity in the city to have shovels in the

his building permit. He was further helped along by the

ground for 2,000 homes come spring 2017, and some of the

house’s location in a less badly damaged area, where in-

worst-hit areas may take much longer to clean up before con-

frastructure remained in good condition. By early August,

struction can even begin on their fire-gutted streets. Frustration

he had the go-ahead to start rebuilding.

will inevitably be part of the process, and all builders can really

Eckel is glad to be building again, but he also knows no one should rush the process, however much they may

do is manage expectations and ensure they do not overextend themselves.

want to get into their homes right away. He has also re-

“I’m not going to take on more than I should, because right

ceived one of the first building permits for Beacon Hill,

there you’re going to let people down,” Eckel says. “They’ve

where 70 per cent of homes were lost, and the client is

been through enough.”

struggling to decide whether to build in the fall.

One of the main arguments for taking a slower approach to

“It’s hard to build one house in the middle of a devas-

rebuilding is that it allows more time for home planning. Before

tated area like that,” Eckel says. “People want to try to live

the fire, companies like Vis-Star focused largely on building

there, and it’s going to be absolute chaos next year. You’d

houses on spec—they made all the decisions, created a final

be one house in the middle. Try to enjoy your life when

product and sold it as-is to someone. Now, almost all of the work

there’s construction going on all around you.”

will be customized, with homeowners having to make dozens

Chaulk has faced a similar challenge as he ex-

of decisions on everything from paint colour to countertops.

plains to clients the pros and cons of starting right

That’s why Chaulk hopes people will take the winter to talk to

away. Anyone rebuilding a home in the most damaged

builders rather than scrambling for a fall start.

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“A big benefit in being able to wait is it gives you more plan-

Jim Rivait, the former chief executive officer of

ning time. It gives you more time to settle down and work with

the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Home Builders’

us,” he says. “Sometimes the turtle wins the race.”

Association, recalls situations where people were getting

Besides, there will be no shortage of work to do throughout

houses with builder liens on them, in addition to other

winter. Both Chaulk and Eckel have already accumulated a long

quality concerns. He’s glad to see the Alberta government

list of horror stories about the thousands of homes that survived

will require anyone who wants to build in the region to

but sustained damage. Windows are cracked, siding and ga-

provide a declaration that ensures they have no liens or

rage doors are melted, and shingles need to be replaced. Smoke

outstanding issues. The province cannot afford to see the

damage in some cases is so severe the entire interior must be

same problems from Slave Lake repeated in Fort McMurray.

gutted. Chaulk has seen basements caked in mold due to sump

“When you take people who have been through what

pumps going offline during the evacuation. Eckel encountered

many people in Fort McMurray have experienced and tell

a house that got so hot its hardwood floors now snap if you walk

them you can have them in their house in three months,

on them. They just dried out that much.

they’ll say, ‘Okay, where do I sign?’” he says. “They’re

“People are only thinking about the 2,600 rebuilds,” Chaulk says. “They’re losing sight of the fact that there are 5,000 more

understanding the builder’s capacity.”

houses that need siding, roofs, attic insulation, windows and

In reality, he expects homes will take a minimum of

garage doors. People talk rebuild, but there are millions and

six months to build. Further adding to the timeline will be

millions of dollars worth of repairs that have to happen.”

insurance issues, which could take months for some people

Slave Lake lessons The magnitude of the Fort McMurray rebuild may be unique,

100

more worried about getting back to normal than really

to resolve. Insurers, like the government, will need to help guide shell-shocked residents through the complex rebuilding process to ensure everyone is protected, Rivait believes.

but the situation calls to mind the 2011 fires that destroyed

“The spirit is there to do a good job,” he says. “The

over 400 buildings in Slave Lake. And if that rebuild taught the

municipality and everyone wants to do a good job, but

province anything, it is that traumatized homeowners will need

there are some interesting challenges they’re going to

guidance and support.

face along the way.”

S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


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Mending hearts and minds SOCIAL AGENCIES THERE FROM THE BEGINNING TO HELP

On the surface, the damage from the Wood Buffalo fire is clear to see—the missing houses, the empty neighbourhoods, the blackened trees. In all, the fire destroyed around 2,400 structures, including around 1,600 homes. Another 5,000 homes suffered significant

PHOTO: REUTERS/MARK BLINCH

damage. Repairing this physical damage is going to take years. Then there’s the deeper damage, the things that don’t show on the surface. As of the end of June, Alberta Health Services reported providing close to 13,000 counselling sessions to help heal the hidden scars left by those terrible days in May. On some days, it reported providing more than 300 sessions per day as the emotional consequences of the wildfire set in.

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Healing these emotional scars from the fire is going to be just as challenging and time consuming as rebuilding the community. Fortunately, the social services sector has been there since the beginning, ready to help. It didn’t take the Canadian Red Cross long to see the need when fire began ravaging Fort McMurray. On May 3, the same day the fire raged throughout the city, the Red Cross put itself on alert with personnel and stock ready to deploy. “Our teams are currently mobilizing to support affected people, families and communities in any way that help is needed,” Jean-Philippe Tizi, vice-president of emergency management for the Canadian Red Cross, said at the time. A day later, it launched an appeal for financial donations. In September, Red Cross Canada president and chief executive officer Conrad Sauvé outlined the results of the humanitarian group’s efforts. “Canadians were touched by seeing fellow Canadians being evacuated...and responded tremendously,” he said. “We have gotten donations from every part of the country.” Around 2,600 Red Cross volunteers and staff worked to process donations from more than one million Canadians, he said. So far, the Red Cross has allocated $146 million to individuals and families, including $84.4 million in direct cash assistance for food, clothing, Help was available immediately after the fire and continues to this day.

medical costs and transportation, Sauvé said. An additional $50 million will be used for residents without insurance or with insufficient insurance to pay rent or mortgage bills and purchase household goods. Cash will also be saved to help with the costs of repairing damaged homes and building new ones. Social agencies will have help getting back on their feet, with $50 million available, and another $30 million is there for small businesses that may need it. Disaster preparedness programs will be funded with $12 million. The Alberta government guaranteed to match any donations to the Red Cross during the fire. That money will go toward community partnership grants for charitable non-profits, indigenous and

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“Our community has always been known as being the most generous United Way community in the country per capita, and while our dollars might be impacted in the coming year, I don’t think the generosity of spirit of our donors and industry supporters is going to be diminished.” — Diane Shannon, executive director, United Way

faith-based groups, small business relief and post-disas-

subsectors, such as families, mental health and First

ter wellness support for residents, according to Danielle

Nations. Together, the group is working to ensure no one

Larivee, the Alberta minister of municipal affairs.

is forgotten as the city rebuilds.

“We know this is just the beginning of a long journey,” she says.

Among the issues the task force must resolve is what to do with the many donated goods that have been collected for the city. Currently, a government-hired organiza-

United Way preparing for long haul

tion is managing the millions of items at an Edmonton

“That could be me.”

warehouse. Eventually, the community will have to take

That phrase—a reminder that no one is immune

on that responsibility itself. Through the task force, the

from tragedy—was a theme of the United Way of Fort

different non-profits can identify the local agency best

McMurray’s 2015 fundraising campaign. But it has taken

positioned to handle that job. For Shannon, such a ware-

on a poignant new meaning for the community in the

house—providing furniture or other household goods

wake of the wildfires. Everyone has now shared in the

to lower-income residents—could be a valuable legacy

same sense of loss and vulnerability, even local charities

piece from the fire.

like the United Way.

Other questions will need to be answered going for-

Within a day of being evacuated, United Ways from

ward, and some may prove harder to resolve than who

across the country—Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and even

will handle the furniture donations. The United Way and

the national organization—were reaching out to the Fort

other social profits could face fundraising challenges as

McMurray chapter with offers of support and office space.

many local residents understandably focus on their own

Crucially, the larger affiliates offered administrative

financial difficulties in the short term.

support and technical expertise to establish a website to

“Our community has always been known as being the

handle the donations that were already flooding in. They

most generous United Way community in the country per

even provided use of a vehicle to executive director Diane

capita, and while our dollars might be impacted in the

Shannon, who was forced to evacuate without her own car.

coming year, I don’t think the generosity of spirit of our

Funds came in many forms. Children were reaching

donors and industry supporters is going to be dimin-

out with proceeds from lemonade stands. Americans were

ished,” she says.

calling Shannon with offers to stage special fundraising

During the fire and its aftermath, everyone discovered

events in their neighbourhoods for Canada Day. The do-

“that joy of making a difference in somebody else’s life,”

nations would ultimately add up to $3.5 million, includ-

Shannon says. Large oilsands projects turned into charita-

ing proceeds from a charitable concert at Edmonton’s

ble organizations overnight by providing food and shelter

Commonwealth Stadium at the end of June, Shannon says.

to evacuees. People left behind their own belongings to

In Fort McMurray, the organization provides space

check on neighbours—sometimes strangers whose names

for many local groups through the Redpoll Centre, and

they didn’t even know—to make sure everyone was safely

it acts as a leading voice for the social profit community.

evacuated. That community spirit will be evident in the

Shannon has taken this role one step further as chair

coming years throughout the recovery, she believes.

of the social recovery task force, a group consisting of

“Every one of us was vulnerable. Every one of us re-

representatives from each of the major social profit

ceived a hand up from somebody else,” Shannon says. “I

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105


Arianna Johnson, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, saw around 5,400 food hampers handed out to returning Wood Buffalo residents in early summer.

think it awakened a sense that we’re all in this world together, and we need to look out for one another.”

Food Bank meets unique needs of returnees As Arianna Johnson unloaded food at an Anzac reception centre on May 3, she already knew her home in Fort McMurray had been lost. It may have been left standing after fire ripped through its neighbourhood, but the building was damaged beyond repair. Months later, it was finally demolished. The executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank had little time to dwell on her own situation at the time, however. Initially evacuated to Lac La Biche, she eventually wound up with several food bank staffers at her parents’ cabin in B.C. Together, they worked on a plan for re-entry—whenever that day would come. They would have to wait until May 27 to return to the city and begin cleaning up the food bank. In total, over 53,000 individual food items would be thrown out. On June 6, food inspectors gave the organization approval to reopen. Trucks filled with donations that had been stored by Alberta Food Banks in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Leduc began rumbling up the highway. For the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, its role in supporting the recovery had begun.

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“The concern was would people re-entering the city be able to bring enough food for two weeks with

Artist Russell Thomas captures iconic image of fire chief, turns it into fundraising juggernaut

them, and would they have the storage capacity for two weeks of perishable goods? The likelihood for a lot of people was not,” Johnson says. “So the Red Cross increased our grant to $1 million to ensure that we were able to provide increased perishable goods to families on a weekly basis.” Typically, people apply to use the food bank. They can receive a food hamper—containing about a month’s worth of goods—up to six times in one year. But residents returning home after the fire needed increased access to fresh goods. From June through the end of August, all anyone would need to receive a hamper with a week’s worth of food was a Red Cross number. When the food bank reopened to the public on June 11, 126 hampers were handed out in seven hours, Johnson says. The next day, another 196 were given out. Ultimately, the organization settled into a routine: it would stay open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., or until it had handed out its daily limit of 150 hampers. Johnson can recall few days over the summer when they were still open at 7 p.m. Over three months, the organization handed out 7,894 hampers to 5,396 different households. Before the fire, when the food bank was handing out monthly hampers, it was serving an average of 490 households per month.

BACK FROM THE BRINK

The first text didn’t make sense. The second left Russell Thomas in a panic. A co-worker sent an image of the fire atop Abasand Hill, and that’s how he learned many sections of the city were under mandatory evacuation. “I was facilitating a painting workshop with the amazing team at the Mark Amy Treatment Centre in Anzac. About 18 people were finishing up a portrait of Chief Dan George when the first text came. A minute or two later she sent me a second photo with two words: ‘Happening now.’ I went over to Twitter and discovered that certain areas of the city were on mandatory evacuation. We cancelled the painting workshop. While I was anxious to head back to town, I didn’t really have a sense of the scope and scale of what I was about to see. I assumed that I would easily be able to get home to my wife and two sons. That was a completely wrong assumption. It would be several days before I would be reunited with my family as they evacuated north and I went south,” shares Thomas. As he evacuated, Thomas, who is the director of communications and community impact for the United Way of Fort McMurray, had an “overwhelming feeling” that he may never paint again. “Even though I had escaped with my painting supplies, I didn’t feel right about painting again until we were back together as a family. That first night of being together I finished my portrait of Chief Dan George. I had this sense: I need to paint another chief—fire Chief Darby Allen. The next morning, my sister Corinne in Ontario—now living in Fort McMurray—asked if she could pay me to paint Darby, as she wanted to give it to him as a thank you for everything he was doing and going through as the leader during such a devastating event. I told Corinne that I was absolutely painting the fire chief and that there was no way she was going to pay me for it. It would be a gift to the department,” explains Thomas. The fire chief became a symbol of hope for the over 80,000 residents who had to suddenly evacuate. Thomas began the painting, which he calls a “happy accident,” late on Mother’s Day and was done in three and a half hours. He posted it on social media and woke up the next morning to learn it had gone viral. “The painting was posted on my Facebook page and on Twitter. The premier retweeted and commented on it, and the media started calling shortly after, radio, television stations and newspapers across Canada. By the end of that day, the painting and the story of its creation had been seen by tens of millions of Canadians,” shares Thomas, who has been in Fort McMurray for almost 20 years. Requests for prints began immediately pouring in, but Thomas refused to benefit financially from the piece. “It was at that time we hatched the idea of offering commemorative prints for people who donated to the United for Fort McMurray campaign, raising funds for the recovery of the social infrastructure of our community. Hundreds of those prints have gone to generous people across Canada and some in the U.S. Everyone who donated at the $1,000 or higher level were invited to receive a print to be signed by a collection of first responders prior to the Oilsands Banquet on November 16. Either directly or indirectly, the painting helped raise almost $100,000 for the United Way.”

107


Wit h t he a r r iva l of September, t he food ba n k

Before the wildfire, it focused on advocating for Fort

returned to a more familiar routine, although still

McMurray’s seniors. Much of the organization’s work

providing weekly hampers for residents re-entering

consisted of macro-level policy and procedural discus-

the most damaged areas. Still, there have been set-

sions, such as helping to develop a coordinated commu-

backs, like a late August fire in one of the buildings

nity response to elder abuse or putting together a report

the organization had rented to store excess donations.

card on how the city was meeting the needs of its seniors.

Johnson estimates around $200,000 worth of goods had to be thrown out.

It rema i ns a n advocate for sen iors, but t hose high-level discussions have been put on the back burner

Despite the relief of being back home, there is still a

as the society focuses on the immediate challenges of

sense of uneasiness and uncertainty, particularly among

helping the city’s elderly population return home. The

those who must rebuild. Several staff and board members

backroom policy planners are now front line workers

of the food bank, like Johnson, lost homes. But rather than

ensuring the needs of seniors are not forgotten during

dwell on what was lost, she prefers to focus on what she

the chaos of re-entry. Luana Bussieres, executive director of the society,

can give others. “For a lot of us, there is just this sense of helplessness.

decided early on in the evacuation to ensure seniors had

We don’t know what is going to happen,” she says. “Doing

access to all the resources they needed and were properly

what I do for a living makes a lot of these things easier.

placed. She marshalled her team of three staffers to begin

Having the ability to be able to go to work and help people

tracking down as many local seniors as they could find.

is very useful.”

At the same time, they worked on reconnecting families wherever possible. People from as far as Ohio were reaching

St. Aidan’s Society helping seniors cope with post-fire challenges

out to Bussieres to find out the status of elderly relatives.

St. Aidan’s Society has become a very different organi-

stressful for anyone regardless of age, poses unique

zation since May 3.

challenges for older residents of Fort McMurray. “It’s

The evacuation and recovery, while undoubtedly

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Luana Bussieres, executive director of St. Aidan’s Society, was tasked with helping elderly residents deal with the disaster.

different for seniors,” Bussieres says. “Their support systems are different. You deal with cognitive functioning and physical limitation

“Icimincipiet elicatur, sitem quundi optaepr empore sam, illecer natur? Quis re siti rentibust voluptae. Lit, odit qui quam quo bea voleceriant”,

issues. It’s easy to overlook them as a general community, and we can’t do that.” One potential problem for many seniors is a lack of tech savvy, which makes it more difficult for them to navigate the complexities of the insurance world and access information about support resources. Some seniors have missed out on the money provided by the Red Cross and the provincial government, for example. Disturbingly, there have even been cases of financial abuse where family members have kept money intended for an elderly relative, Bussieres notes.

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BACK FROM THE BRINK

109


Moving a senior from familiar environs late in life

they are when you know they’re hurting, but they’re just

also carries the risk of transfer trauma. Their ability to

not at a place—at least right now—where they’re willing

function can permanently decrease, mortality rates can

to deal with it. As hard as it is for social workers, that

rise, and mental health risks like depression and anx-

needs to be okay.”

iety are not uncommon. And when people do return to aged homes requiring extensive cleanup and repairs.

The Salvation Army of Fort McMurray soldiers on

Understandably, they feel overwhelmed and unable to

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a charity organiza-

cope. For some—particularly those who were already

tion is realizing there are some problems that just can’t

struggling to maintain their own independence—the

be solved. Maj. Stephen Hibbs, executive director of the

fire has suddenly and painfully taken away their ability

Salvation Army of Fort McMurray, saw that first-hand

to live on their own.

as his staff worked the welcome centres as residents

their normal surroundings, they are finding dirty, dam-

No wonder some seniors are struggling to accept the new

re-entered the city in June following the wildfires.

reality that has arisen in the aftermath of the fire. Bussieres

“When people say they have lost everything, we wish

has seen cases where a senior has returned to a house with

we could replace everything. Our people found that a little

the siding half melted off and smoke still lingering in the air

bit hard,” he says. “We always want to fix things, but there

only to decide that no repairs or cleanup are needed. He just

are things we can’t fix.”

needs the world to be fine. Working through these lingering

For many locals returning to their hometown for the

traumas will take time, but Bussieres and her team intend

first time in a month, the Salvation Army workers were

to be there supporting local seniors through it all. Everyone

the first faces to greet them. The organization was part

has to heal at his or her own pace.

of the chaplain teams stationed at each centre, and its

“It’s very challenging to accept that somebody is

workers were busy handing out snacks and water to the

saying it’s okay when you know it’s not,” she says. “It’s

tired travellers. Most importantly, they were there to

a huge challenge for my team to just let people be where

listen and provide emotional support.

TOGETHER WE ARE FORT McMURRAY STRONG Shell Albian Sands salutes all emergency responders for their incredible perseverance in battling the wildfires. As a partner in the Mutual Aid program, we proudly worked alongside oil sands operators, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and 30+ fire departments who came from near and far to provide firefighting support to residents and businesses in our community. We’ve never been prouder to be part of such an amazing community. GREAT PEOPLE. GREAT PLACE. GREAT COMMUNITY.

Allan Bailey, Bailey Photographic / www.ESAcanada.com

Shell Canada Energy is 60% owner and operator of the Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) along with Chevron Canada Limited (20%) and Marathon Oil Corporation (20%). AOSP includes Shell Albian Sands (Muskeg River Mine & Jackpine Mine) and the Scotford Upgrader.

The Mutual Aid Partnership

@Shell_Canada | www.shell.ca | #ymmstrong

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S AV I N G WO O D B U F FA LO. C A


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Maj. Stephen Hibbs, executive director of the Salvation Army of Fort McMurray.

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BACK FROM THE BRINK

111


“People’s emotions were all over the board, especially

a thrift store and a church. All survived the fire, albeit some

when families would come and children were involved,”

with heavy smoke damage. But the organization had its

Hibbs says. “We had teddy bears to pass out, and I think

church open on June 1 for the first wave of the re-entry. It

every teddy bear was saturated with tears.”

dubbed the building the Sally Ann Café and promised “coffee,

Indeed, there were tears all around. Out of the Fort

conversation and encouragement” to anyone who needed it.

McMurray Salvation Army’s 121 staff, 14 lost everything.

And many people have needed—and will continue to

Yet many of the workers—working 12- or 14-hour days in

need—the organization’s services as the rebuild continues.

some cases—put their own issues aside to focus on help-

Hibbs estimates the Salvation Army distributed over 8,000

ing returning residents. Hibbs and his wife, along with an

pairs of footwear, in addition to countless more clothes,

associate officer, were there as well, moving from centre

blankets, mattresses and bedding. For a while, they had 14

to centre to provide moral support and rally the troops.

sea cans in their church parking lot filled with donations.

Throughout the entire ordeal, the organization was

All were eventually emptied.

always just one step behind the front line workers. On the

As temporary housing units are set up, the Salvation

weekend before the evacuation, the Salvation Army was

Army will help provide furnishings to the residents awaiting

providing food and water for first responders grappling

more permanent homes, but donations have not been in

with the fire north of the city. Soon, the volunteers would

short supply. The greater challenge will be ensuring the

be stationed at Fire Hall 5 before being evacuated to the

organization’s financial resources can keep up with the

airport, then to Anzac, and finally to Wandering River

demand for its services. But after seeing the outpouring of

on May 3. One day later, they were back to providing

support for Fort McMurray from across the country, Hibbs is

nourishment to the emergency crews. In the coming

confident the city will have the resources it needs to rebuild.

weeks, they would provide as many as 3,000 meals per

“I just have a big thank you from the Fort McMurray Salvation Army to Albertans and Canadians for coming

day, Hibbs says. The Salvation Army’s presence in the city is spread across numerous facilities: 10 group homes, two shelters,

alongside and helping us help others,” he says. “We salute that.”

Proud Member of Your Community (AND 120 OTHERS TOO)

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PROUD SUPPORTER OF OILSANDS BANQUET HONOURING THE HEROES OF THE GREAT FORT MCMURRAY WILDFIRE.

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Air Canada .................................................................... 113

Edmonton Exchanger ................................................... 68

Prevost .......................................................................... 109

Alberta Construction Association .............................. 32

Epcor ............................................................................... 79

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Alberta Wilbert Sales.................................................... 89

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ATCO Group ................................................................. 101

Graham Constuction ..................................................... 98

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Athabasca Oil ................................................................. 68

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Shell............................................................................... 110

Bank of Montreal ......................................................... IFC

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Site Energy ..................................................................... 64

Birch Mountain .............................................................. 84

Heavy Metal Equipment ............................................... 61

SNC-Lavalin...................................................................... 7

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Sureway Construction .................................................. 67

Casman Group ................................................................61

Husky Energy ................................................................. 87

TransCanada .................................................................. 31

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IBC.................................................................................. IBC

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Intact.............................................................................. 111

Tridon .............................................................................. 50

Clean Harbors .............................................................. 114

JWN ........................................................................... 42,94

Tuccaro.............................................................................. 4

Clear Stream Energy ..................................................... 50

Noralta ............................................................................ 54

Vallen ............................................................................... 91

Devon .............................................................................. 68

PCL Construction ............................................................. 5

Diversified ...................................................................... 28

Pembina ........................................................................ 112

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BACK FROM THE BRINK

— Melissa Blake, mayor, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Northern Stars, the publication of the Oil Sands Banquet, celebrates community and corporate leadership in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

TH E STORY OF THE MANY H EROES OF TH E G RE AT WOOD BUFFALO WILDFIRE

“There is not enough gratitude we can extend to our first responders and the many thousands more who are all HEROES in our minds.”

Profile for westbrier

Back to the brink  

The story of the many heroes of the Great Wood Buffalo Wildfire.

Back to the brink  

The story of the many heroes of the Great Wood Buffalo Wildfire.

Profile for westbrier