When the wildfires flared up near Fort McMurray in early May, it was immediately clear that this would be a disaster of an unprecedented scale. Premier of Alberta/Flickr

The wildfire that ripped through northern Alberta in early May devastated the land and disrupted oil sands operations. But thanks to quick action and logistical leadership by oil sands companies in the face of the natural disaster, they avoided the worst of the fire and helped evacuate the town of Fort McMurray.

When Dave Wallace, the Fort McMurray branch manager for Brandt Tractor, picked up the phone to talk to CIM Magazine it had been seven weeks since the massive forest fire that came to be known as “The Beast” swept through the town and Wallace apologized for the noise in the background.

It sounded like he was in a car driving at highway speed, but it was actually a phalanx of fans running at full blast in an effort to purge the Brandt offices of the lingering smell of smoke.

“When the whole town is bathed in smoke, and it’s just hanging over top of it on a calm day, it kind of drifts in and stays; there’s nothing you can do about it,” Wallace said. “It’s going to go into everything anyways.”

Cleaners have been working on the office since the week before, but, like every other element of Fort McMurray’s cleanup and recovery in the wake of The Beast, it is going to take a while.

When the wildfires flared up in early May, it was immediately clear that this would be a disaster of an unprecedented scale.

Each night, television news relayed images of frantic escapes from a burning city, entire neighbourhoods on fire and expletive-laden amateur videos of highway overpasses surrounded by hellish sheets of flame. A nation watched, gobsmacked, as it considered the very real possibility that a vital Canadian city might burn to the ground in a matter of days.

Instead, first responders, aided by oil company workers and countless acts of kindness by Good Samaritans achieved what was nearly unthinkable: the complete evacuation of a city of 80,000. They came achingly close to pulling it off without any fatalities, were it not for the deaths of two teenagers in a highway crash on May 4, after most of the evacuation had taken place.

“The fact that they got everybody out that first day [May 3] is an absolute miracle,” said Wallace.

Fort Mac neighborhood
The wildfire in northern Alberta prompted the evacuation of Fort McMurray, a town of about 80,000 inhabitants. Premier of Alberta/Flickr

A major supplier of heavy equipment and parts to oil sands companies and contractors in the area surrounding Fort McMurray, Brandt stayed open through most of the period of mandatory mass evacuation. When the fires first struck, Wallace ordered all of his employees to go home, which was easier said than done, given the traffic paralyzing the main roads out of town. Wallace said his own drive home, which normally takes 15 minutes, took an hour and a half, with flames closing in on the road. “I went into the ditch one time just to get away from the Flying J [truck stop] when it lit up on fire because I wasn’t sure how long it was gonna take before the tanks blew up.”

Most of Brandt’s 55 workers were evacuated. Some managers, Wallace included, set up shop at the company’s Edmonton office.

But there was little rest for anyone. A handful of workers trickled back in to Fort McMurray after May 6 to find the fire had passed within 300 metres of the Brandt building as they dispatched an excavator and other heavy equipment to help the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo cap the city garbage dump with clay to prevent it from burning. The company was declared an essential service (which is why employees remained in Fort McMurray during the mandatory evacuation) and helped establish a critical supply chain, with drivers travelling about four and a half hours from Edmonton every day.

Brandt workers also travelled to the fire line, bringing replacement parts and performing maintenance on firefighting equipment, much of which was constantly coated with ash. “We were doing everything we could to try and help out the fire crews,” Wallace said.

Thanks to some good luck and the herculean efforts of those fire crews, the doomsday scenarios never came to pass. But the scale of the destruction wrought by the wildfires was still massive. Flames destroyed about 10 per cent of the city, some 2,400 buildings in all. Nearly two months later, not everyone who fled had come home, and those who had returned were welcomed by everything from refrigerators full of rotting food to piles of ash where their homes once stood.

Still, the response to Fort McMurray has to stand as an all-time feat of emergency management, and oil sands companies played a huge part in that. As reporter Tristin Hopper wrote in the National Post, “Alberta’s oil producers effectively turned themselves into multi-million dollar humanitarian organizations at the drop of a hat. All told, the reason so much of Fort McMurray was saved – and the reason no full-scale military relief deployment was ever required – was due in no small part to the lightning response of the region’s major employers.”

Fort Mac Firefighter in smokeIndustry estimates that disruption to oil sands operations as a result of the fire in May equalled nearly a billion dollars of lost GDP. Premier of Alberta/Flickr

Logistical lifeline

Virtually every major oil sands player performed some role in the disaster response. Companies and their employees donated millions to the Red Cross to assist relief efforts, but companies also drew on their own logistical heft to help out in the midst of a chaotic situation where the conventional playbook was often thrown out the window.

Perhaps most notable was the thousands of evacuees who were sheltered at and then flown out of various oil sands camps after they fled north from the city and were cut off from the rest of the province. More than 25,000 evacuees passed through oil sands camps on their way to safety.

Suncor, for example, flew more than 10,000 people out of its Firebag Aerodrome, near Fort McKay, using its own fleet of aircrafts and leasing four more planes from WestJet. Shell Canada sheltered around 2,000 evacuees at its Albian oil sands facility and flew out 8,000 people from the airstrip there. Imperial Oil sheltered 2,000 people at its Kearl facility. And Syncrude sheltered and evacuated employees, plus their families and pets, at a decommissioned camp at its Mildred Lake upgrading complex.

“We have our own emergency operations centre and this was a goal of the people running it – that we would work towards getting all non-essential people relocated off our site and out of the region, [and we] worked with other operators to coordinate airlifts to get them down to other parts of the province,” said Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters at a news conference on May 10 that industry’s response to the fires “was a combination of organic and planned.”

“Safety is a key feature of the work that everybody in the industry does and part of that is having a well thought out evacuation plan should their particular camps and facilities be threatened,” Notley said. “So it worked out quite well that those plans were able to be transferred to the process of evacuating the folks from Fort McMurray who had moved north as a result of the fire.”

“We were able to do some things in a very short space of time, we were able to do some things that would have been impossible on our own,” Suncor CEO Steve Williams told reporters at the same news conference.

Oil sands companies also helped keep the firefighting machine running during the height of the fire. Syncrude contributed firefighters and firefighting equipment to the effort, while Imperial Oil donated 20,000 litres of gasoline to the RCMP. The National Post reported that Brion Energy sent daily shipments of perishable goods to the Fort McKay First Nation and trucks provided by Canadian National Resources were used to shuttle around supplies airlifted into the region.

“Our industry partners provided tremendous assistance to evacuees and government when the fires were at their worst,” said Alberta energy minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd in an emailed statement. “Industry opened their doors and welcomed thousands of people from Fort McMurray into their work camps, providing food, water and shelter to people who desperately needed it. Government was in contact with companies who were providing assistance and worked closely to determine what their needs were, how many people they were sheltering and how everyone could act in a coordinated manner.”

All this was happening as the oil sands companies were dealing with volatile situations at or near their own operations.

Syncrude contributed firefighters and firefighting equipment to the effort to control the wildfire in northern Alberta in May. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Safety shutdown

Shell shuttered its Albian Sands operation on May 4 in order to focus on using the airstrip there to fly evacuees to safety, even though the camp itself was not initially threatened by fire, before restarting production three days later. “I feel incredibly proud to be part of this team, and humbled to witness how we have responded in the face of an extremely difficult set of circumstances,” said Peter Zebedee, Shell’s manager of mining at Albian.

On May 7, the same day the fire was reported to have reached some 2,000 square kilometres in size, Syncrude announced it was evacuating essential personnel from its Mildred Lake complex and Aurora mine, located 70 kilometres from Fort McMurray. “We’ve been producing oil in Fort McMurray since 1978,” said Gibson. “We’ve never shut down our operation until we did earlier this month. We’ve faced adversity before, but this is something that’s unprecedented in Syncrude’s history.”

Suncor shut down its base plant, as well as operations at Firebag and MacKay Lake, plus an upgrader and two surface mines, taking around 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) of capacity offline.

Cenovus, meanwhile, evacuated all non-essential staff on May 5 as a precaution from its Christina Lake project – located about 150 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray – but continued to operate at normal levels. “This was done primarily to facilitate a swift evacuation and shutdown of the plant if it became necessary,” said spokesman Brett Harris in an email. “As it turned, out however, Christina Lake was never directly threatened by any wildfire, essential staff remained at site and we continued to produce at normal levels throughout.” Harris said the Christina Lake evacuation was based on the extreme fire conditions in the area as well as intermittent disruptions of the area’s communications network.

As producers worked towards a restart, a sudden northward shift in the wildfire two weeks after the initial evacuations put those plans on hold. Syncrude and Suncor halted restart plans, and the Globe and Mail reported more than 8,000 workers had to be evacuated. As the hot dry weather lingered into June, Cenovus endured a minor scare when flames from an unrelated fire came within a kilometre of its Pelican Lake conventional heavy oil operation. The plant was shut down and evacuated, but was back online inside a week.

The cost

Industry estimates peg the disruption to Canada’s oil output at an average of 1.2 million bpd for two weeks, resulting in nearly a billion dollars of lost GDP. In mid-May, the “catastrophe modelling firm” AIR Worldwide estimated the total damage to the city of Fort McMurray at between $4.4 billion and $9 billion, making the wildfires the costliest disaster in Canadian history, though those figures do not extend to the oil industry. McCuaig-Boyd, Alberta’s energy minister, said the government could not confirm those figures. “Detailed assessments are underway to help better determine the overall cost of the wildfire,” she wrote.

While there was no physical damage to the oil sands operations, there are the costs associated with the evacuations and emergency response borne by oil companies. “The costs are important,” said Williams, the Suncor CEO, during the May news conference. “We’re looking at them, but they’re immaterial as far as Suncor is concerned.”

The road to recovery

Back at Brandt Tractor, life is slowly returning to normal. It has already been a brutal year in the oilpatch, thanks to the massive collapse in oil prices. Wallace estimates the market for heavy equipment in Fort McMurray is down between 60 and 70 per cent in the last year, before the fires. There will be work cleaning up what remains of burned-out and smoke-damaged homes and commercial buildings in the city, although Wallace said the selection of a B.C.-based company to do this work created “a fair bit of animosity” while residents are still looking for work.

Wallace said all but one of his 55 employees are returning to work. According to him, morale around the office was high, but so were the stress levels, with people unsure about when their families would return or what was happening with housing. Wallace said four workers lost houses in the fire, and 15 more could not get back in their rental places for various reasons. Wallace himself even moved into his boss’s house for more than two weeks.

The road back for Fort McMurray promises to be long. The hardest hit neighbourhoods, like Abasand and Beacon Hill, which together saw more than 1,600 buildings destroyed by the fire, remain uninhabitable. At first, Wallace said, residents were excited to start the rebuilding process. But as the tedium of routine settled in, and people began to realize that bringing their town back will be a long, slow grind. “It’s probably a 10-year rebuilding process,” he said. “We’re trying to restart a whole economy.”

For now, it is the little things that keep spirits up around town. On May 20, during a barbecue held in honour of the first responders who worked so hard to save Fort McMurray, the skies finally opened up and dumped a three-hour deluge on a town that had been baking in the sun for the better part of a month. It ruined the barbecue, but nobody seemed to mind.

“I’ve never been so happy to see rain in my life,” Wallace said. “It was pouring on top of the barbecue and nobody cared.”