With May 2021 being the 5th anniversary of the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfires, I used it as an opportunity to document my personal experience during the wildfire.
With all the emotions and events of the wildfire, the blog became quite long and needed to be broken into 2 parts. Part 1 was released a few weeks ago and you can read it here.
If you would like to read a thorough timeline of events, there is one here.
This blog is Part 2 of My Experience with the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire.
Part 1 Recap
To recap, my role at this time was as the Operations Centre Manager of Fort McMurray’s largest transportation provider. This meant supporting a team of about 25 Dispatchers, Schedulers, Managers, and operations administrators. Together, our team was responsible for coordinating the 24/7 operations of over 450 buses and drivers.
Where we left off, it was the day of the fire and we were all turning in for the night. Everyone had been evacuated from Fort McMurray; some to the south to major centres, and others to the north to work camps. The only highway in and out of town was impassable due to fire danger. Those north of town in work camps had no way out by road.
Those from our team who could stay to help had hunkered down in our HQ building. We hadn’t had a chance to try to fall asleep until at least 2 AM, many of us sleeping in our offices on the floor.
Our General Manager was even prepared with pyjamas! It provided for a lighter moment as none of us had ever seen him not wearing professional attire before!
We went to sleep exhausted. We were also hoping the worst and heaviest parts of the evacuation would be behind us and that the next day wouldn’t be as tough.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016, Morning
Our hope for sleep was quickly dashed. We were awoken less than 2 hours after trying to sleep.
We had hoped that we could sleep with all evacuees knowing what they were doing for the night. However, our customers were furiously working throughout the night to be prepared for the morning. This meant they needed to keep us up to date with all the moving parts as they became known.
We put off hope for sleep until the next night.
We had two locations in town that housed our bus fleet: our HQ and one south location. When the fire threatened our south location, all the buses had been relocated to the airport. At this point, many of our buses from our HQ were either north of town with evacuees or in Edmonton after having taken evacuees there. Some buses remained at our HQ, however.
While we had been granted special authority to stay in the town after it was evacuated, the fire was still growing. We knew that we would soon be told we needed to evacuate once and for all ourselves. We felt uneasy about leaving those buses to potentially catch fire.
We found some parking space approximately 30 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, just off Highway 63. We were sure that this was far enough away from the fire and would be the safest place to park them while still in proximity of Fort McMurray.
We recruited as many drivers as we could to help us move those buses from our north location to the new parking space. We started taking as many buses to the new location as we could, prioritizing them based on their monetary value.
We didn’t have enough drivers to take them all in one trip, so I drove a 15-passenger shuttle vehicle to bring drivers back from the new parking location to get more buses.
As we drove down the highway, I could see the house I was renting was safe and unharmed. A sense of relief was immediately felt. Not because of having lost material possessions, but because it was immediately clear how much work laid before us to recover from the fire. The house would be one less thing to worry about, and I could focus on helping the many others who weren’t as lucky.
We did as many trips as we could bringing buses to the new parking location. Somewhere along this timeline, the fire breached across the highway at the southernmost intersection in town. This meant we couldn’t safely get to the new parking location any longer.
As well, a group of houses directly up the hill from our HQ had set on fire and we could see it from our office.
Both of these events meant our time at HQ was running short. We had the drivers park the remaining buses strategically to reduce the likelihood that they would catch fire. We left enough space between them so that if 1 caught fire, there wouldn’t be another bus in the vicinity that could also catch fire.
With the highway closed southbound, our only route of escape was to head north to a work camp with other evacuees. Off we went.
Most of the Operations Centre team had already evacuated. To those who were left, we relieved them of duty and had them evacuate. We would catch up with them in a few days.
Wednesday, May 5, 2016, Afternoon and Evening
We arrived north at a camp called Noralta Lodge and checked in.
By the time we were able to check-in, it was time to eat dinner. The day had flown by and we couldn’t believe it!
Dinner was a welcome sight after spending the last 30 hours eating whatever snacks happened to be stashed at my desk at work.
The most important thing for me to do was to call every single person on the Operations Centre team and confirm they evacuated and were safe. While I had remained in touch with most of them, it was important 24 hours after the evacuation began to check in once more. I called everyone during and after dinner.
The first question I asked all of them was ‘Are you okay, safe, and with shelter? Was your house affected by the fire? What do you need?’. The most important thing was to make sure that everyone’s basic survival needs were met. After that, we found out where everyone had evacuated to. Many went to Edmonton, but some others went to points beyond such as BC or the Maritimes.
Many of the team asked what would happen next. They all wondered if they were off until we were allowed back in Fort McMurray. I didn’t have any answers.
The best thing to do was to ask if they would be willing to work to be ready when and if we continued working again. It also was important to reassure them that if there was no work in the short term, we would move quickly to make sure they were taken care of through government benefits. The focus was on delivering much-needed peace of mind at a time when there was very little.
After dinner, we received the welcome news that WestJet would be sending airplanes to fly evacuees in work camps to cities south of Fort McMurray. Several of the plants had airstrips for flying their workers to and from work camps. The airlines could fly to these airstrips without risking flying into the Fort McMurray International Airport, which was threatened by the fire. As the highway remained closed due to the fire, going by air would allow people to “jump over” the fire and get to safety.
Our company provided bus transportation for evacuees from the camps to the airstrips. My supervisor and I went to one of the camps to help load passengers on the bus and to coordinate the drivers in the field.
It became clear that people needed a friendly face as they boarded our buses. As much as they were being flown to safety, they were also being moved even further away from their endangered homes. They needed to feel safe for being under our care, if even for a few minutes.
Someone needed to be at the door of each bus to count passengers getting on. Putting on my Disney hat, I thought about ways we could apply the principle of creating magic to bring comfort to the situation.
I stood at the door, made eye contact with every passenger boarding, and wished them safe travels with a giant smile. I was even wearing an Epcot sweater for effect!
Pretty much everyone returned my kindness with a warm, reassuring smile of their own. I needed to see that as much as they needed to see mine! In those moments, I knew that my work had a purpose and was in that place on that specific night for a reason.
At this point, the plants were still working. The Oil Sands plants can’t be shut down just by flicking a switch. It takes a long period of decommissioning, so there was no choice but to keep them operating so long as the fire allowed them to. Some workers had to stay behind to keep things going. Our drivers were taking workers to work from the camps they had been evacuated and back after their shifts.
After a long night helping evacuees find their way to a plane and supporting our driving force, it was time to sleep.
This time, we even got to sleep in a bed! We still only got 4-5 hours of sleep this night, but we were happy for it after only getting 2 hours of sleep on an office floor the night previous.
Tomorrow would be a new day!
Thursday, May 6, 2016
On Thursday, we woke up to a hot breakfast at camp.
We received clearance to send some vehicles southbound on the highway. Not many vehicles would be allowed due to the lingering risk. However, there was a window for us to help some of our families who may have had extra baggage to get south.
My task that morning was to help a newer Team Member evacuate on a shuttle bus with her family. Their family had 3 young girls, 2 dogs, and 1 cat. We had to move quickly before highway conditions changed.
A couple of hours were spent determining which driver would take them and coordinating the logistics to have them picked up. Once the bus arrived, it was so very rewarding to help the family load all of their kids, pets, and belongings on the bus, then wishing them well on their trip.
After this, we headed back to camp to support our driver group for the rest of the day. Like the day before, they were either transporting workers to/from work or bringing evacuees from a camp to a nearby airstrip.
Word began spreading that the fire might let up enough to allow a convoy of vehicles to go southbound through Fort McMurray in the morning.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if I’d be one of them. The number of our drivers and team still in camps north of Fort McMurray was dwindling as more people were evacuated via airplane. There was a chance that my support in Fort McMurray was no longer needed.
We were going to need someone in Edmonton to help set up our operations remotely and helping with that was likely going to be my next assignment.
I went to bed unsure if tomorrow would be my turn to head south. Part of me felt guilty that it might be my turn while valued teammates stayed behind. The other part of me knew that my fiancee and family were going to be worried until I was safely out of Fort McMurray. I didn’t want them to have to worry anymore.
Friday, May 7, 2016
The morning came and we headed to breakfast early so we could be ready in case the road would be opened. During breakfast, we received word that a convoy would be permitted to cross the highway south.
A colleague and I got into my truck to start the journey immediately. Only a limited number of vehicles would be allowed to pass, so we wanted to get there early to make sure we were in the group.
We waited in the lineup waiting for the convoy to begin moving hoping we’d get through. Sure enough, we did!
As we drove through Fort McMurray, we could still see active fires and the city was in a haze of thick smoke. As we passed the downtown area, I could faintly see my rental house poking up above the smoke. What a relief.
We had a limited view of the fire-ravaged neighbourhoods from the highway and were unable to see the full extent of the damage.
As we got further south, we could see the highway lined with cars that ran out of fuel or had other mechanical issues. It was tough to think about how frightened those people must have been hoping someone might pick them up. So many people were generous in helping those in these situations.
The drive was eerily quiet, much more so than it had ever been before. It was peaceful and a great opportunity to reflect and decompress from what had happened over the last three days.
When we arrived in Edmonton, I dropped my colleague off where he would stay for the time being.
My wife’s sister and her family lived in Edmonton. They told me I could stay with them as long as I needed. It was nice to have a welcome place to come to! They had 4 kids who made my life so much more fun and forced me to take my mind off the crisis. We bonded deeply and our relationships grew in a way that lasts to this day.
The rest of Friday was spent with family.
Monday, May 10, 2016
The weekend was spent getting supplies and clothes.
Throughout the weekend, I stayed in touch with the Operations Centre Team to make sure they knew we would be setting up remote operations in Edmonton to support our ongoing efforts in Fort McMurray.
It became clear over that first weekend that even if the fire was finished destroying Fort McMurray, it would be a long time until we could go back. The town was not liveable with many essential services destroyed during the fire. It would take time to get them back.
On Monday, we began setting up a Remote Operations Centre. The first task was to get as many Operations Centre Team Members to work as quickly as we could. Once we mobilized them, our priority became formulating a plan to make sure all of our people were safe and to find out who was in need.
The Operations Centre Team set out to contact every individual in the company. They made sure they were safe, healthy, and checked if their homes were damaged. We also made sure they had somewhere to shelter and asked how we could help. After we confirmed that they were taken care of, we asked if they were willing and able to help us by coming in to work.
We used this information to keep a database to make sure our people were cared for and to track their availability.
Our clients had two needs. The first was to get workers who stayed in Fort McMurray to work at the plants from their camps to work. The second was to get workers to and from Edmonton and Fort McMurray when their shift rotations started and ended.
We spent the day gauging our customers’ needs and began to build a schedule. We were at a major disadvantage because our scheduling software and 2-Way Radios were inoperative in Edmonton.
The drivers that could work were so helpful and generous with their time!
The Rest of the Evacuation Period
Because the focus of this blog is the evacuation of Fort McMurray and in the interests of length, the remainder of our time in evacuation will be briefly summarized.
We continued arranging our customers’ needs for transportation to, from, and within Fort McMurray for the next 4 weeks until we were permitted back into town. It was a struggle to coordinate without our regular systems. Their absence made all of our processes take exponentially more time. We used paper lists, Excel files, and a whiteboard to track our scheduling. Very different from our scheduling software, it was very frustrating for the team.
With so much going on and with everyone worried about going home, it became clear that this was not the time to focus on process re-design. We needed to keep the team positive and focused on what it would take to get us home.
The lesson learned here was to plan for business disruptions before they happen!
We remained evacuated for 4 weeks. That’s how long it took for recovery workers to make the town liveable again. Those weeks felt like an eternity. At least weekly, we received some reason to believe we would go home the next week. Most times, those hopes would be dashed.
Many days began at 4 or 5 AM and could last until 10 PM. Some nights until even 1 AM or later! Fortunately, the kids at my sister-in-law’s house gave me a reason to set aside work for an hour or two every night. They also offered a great deal of perspective that family trumps work. Words could not express enough gratitude for the opportunity to be with them during the evacuation.
After 4 weeks, we began returning home. Not everyone could come at once, and this made the scheduling tasks for our team a challenge. However, all that mattered was that they were safe and that we were coming home.
The night we drove back, I arrived in Fort McMurray just before midnight and was in the office for 2 AM. It was a long day, but it felt great to be with the team in our natural habitat again.
The most incredible thing about the month we were evacuated was that not a single collision or safety incident occurred! Not even a mild bumping of an object with a bus despite being in a new environment. The drivers were so focused on helping, and it showed in their safety performance.
The following January, my wife and I went to Disney World with her sister’s family to celebrate our time together during the fire. It was the perfect way to cap off the ordeal, and being able to share somewhere so special with the kids was a treat!
That summer, the company also wrapped a special Tribute Coach to thank first responders for their heroic efforts.
Here’s hoping you enjoyed reading this two-part series about my experience with the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Thank you for the opportunity to document this for my girls. A special thank you to anyone reading this blog who helped us along the way. This was a time when everyone truly came together to support one another, and that is the greatest memory from the experience.
If you ever have any questions about the fire, please do let me know!
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- My Experience with the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire, Part 2 - June 4, 2021
- My Experience with the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire, Part 1 - May 13, 2021