Out of the fire

As we draw upon the one year anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfires, we take a look back at at how it all began. We originally featured this article in our Connected magazine shortly after wildfires devastated the town of Fort McMurray, displacing over 80,000 people, leveling 2,400 buildings, and spanning more than 500,000 hectares.

Out of the fire

Originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Connected magazine

by Elizabeth Howell
photography by Greg Halinda

The images of an estimated 90,000 people fleeing Fort McMurray’s devastating wildfire in May sent shock waves across Canada and all around the world. Videos emerged on social media of the fire burning just feet from the main evacuation route on Highway 63. An estimated 1,800 homes were lost. The insurance claims were the highest this country has ever seen.

But in the midst of the disaster – which generated $3.58 billion in insurance claims alone – there were also inspiring tales of hope. Thousands of volunteers helped the displaced. Firefighters, hospital workers, transit operators, water plant employees, and many other industry workers pulled extra hours to help. It’s almost unbelievable that there were no lives lost to the fire.

Separations and reunions

“People were coming up from Edmonton with jerry cans,” recalls Concetta Gillard, an Academic Coordinator with Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business, who spent 12 hours trying to get from Fort McMurray to Edmonton when the mandatory evacuation order was handed down May 3. “They were giving them to people who were stranded on the highway because their trucks and cars had run out of gas, it was pretty incredible.”

Concetta was separated from her youngest son for the first day of the evacuation, because her family went to pick up a car from the shop after a tire change. While trying to drive back home, they got caught in the evacuation flow and were forced south out of the city. Her son tried to catch up in another car, but was directed north due to the massive outflow of traffic.

After having to sleep in the car overnight, he left early in the morning and was allowed south to join his family in Edmonton. The air conditioning broke in the car and the air was still smoky, but Concetta’s son made it safely. “He walked in and I just gave him a hug, I was so relieved,” Concetta said.

Like Concetta’s family, Jay Schurman’s family escaped with just the clothes on their backs and their cell phones. Jay, a current Athabasca University MBA student, caught a ride with a neighbour who happened to be at the gym at the same time that he was. Meanwhile, his wife was in a panic to pick up their five-year-old son from school before rushing out of town separately. They reunited in Edmonton the next morning, all safe – but with all of their belongings and home lost to the flames in Beacon Hill, one of the most devastated neighbourhoods of the city.

“We had a digital play-by-play of what was going on at the house,” said Jay, who had a home security system. “We had a good idea the house was gone based on 15 or 20 notifications from the stuff going on in the house. Door open, door close. Window open, window close. We were waiting a week or so to see the final photos [from the site], but I was pretty certain I knew what had happened.”

Jay now finds himself using his MBA to manage his personal life – as well as his professional life at Suncor Energy. He applied the theory of supply and demand to the 3-4 year wait for houses and decided that for now, it would be less stressful to have his family move to a house they own in British Columbia. In the long term, he’s considering renting a place in Edmonton to make visits easier.

Jay says he knows, however, that his community as well as the community-at-large is behind him and “it’s a remarkable feeling to have with everything else that has happened.” He recalls a day shortly after the fire when his wife was asked to go into school because “something happened with your son.” It turned out that the school had raised a bunch of money for the family, and gathered toys and gift cards for their son. “There was a lot of unexpected support, in that regard, from complete strangers – so to speak. It was so overwhelming.”

Jay Schurman’s home in Beacon Hill following the fire

Lending space

Fort McMurray and the surrounding municipality are well-known for the extensive oil deposits in the region, which is a huge driver in the economy. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, estimates there will be $125 billion in oil sands investment in the next decade. The oil sands industry has brought a boom to this region of northern Alberta, also driving the growth of Highway 63, the hospital, and population. It’s now a large community. The Fort McMurray fire was the biggest natural disaster in Canada, says rating agency DBRS.

The mayor of the municipality found herself conducting staff and council meetings from temporary quarters at the city of Edmonton, which generously lent her space. “Even that vital stuff you get through the radio station – those folks had to evacuate too,” Mayor Melissa Blake and Athabasca University business alumna recalled of the day the fire started, when she, her husband, her children, and dogs drove to Edmonton. “The communications shifted as the fire shifted. It was an extraordinary event that I don’t think anyone could be sufficiently prepared for. It was a combination of great effort and a lot of luck.” She remembers speaking twice a day at least with some of the major industry representatives trying to help the region get through the fire, such as Telus, Shaw, and representatives from the gas and electric industries. She heard exceptional tales of water workers staying behind to make sure the fire fighters could continue their work, and a transit worker rushing to get a woman in labour to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, the only hospital in the city.

Helping the vulnerable

The hospital itself was quickly evacuated as well. After co-ordinating with Alberta Health Services (AHS), Westjet rushed a 737 to Fort McMurray to transport 105 patients and continuing care clients, as well as 73 medical staff, said Mauro Chies, a Vice President at AHS. Once the plane landed in Edmonton, he recalled, seven babies and their parents were dispatched to the Royal Alexandra Hospital; other patients were sent to different hospitals for their respective medical conditions.

The hospital survived the fire with $13 million in damage, mostly from water firefighters used to protect the structure. A temporary critical care centre opened May 14, with the hospital itself opening to emergency services June 1, expanding its operating rooms June 13, and re-opening completely June 25.

“After every natural disaster, we always get the group together to do a lessons learned exercise,” said Chies, who received his MBA from Athabasca University in 2008. In this case, AHS had two recent incidents to draw from – the Slave Lake fire of 2011, and the floods in southern Alberta in 2013. “The Fort Mac fire was that much more well-coordinated because, fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, we had other events to learn from,” Chies said.

Houses must now be rebuilt, and insurance claims processed. Winter is quickly approaching Alberta, which means that as the cleanup finishes in the coming months, it will be well into 2017 before construction begins in earnest. Yet, the spirit in the community has not dampened with the ongoing challenges.

Mayor Blake – who received a Bachelor of Administration degree from Athabasca in 1998 – says there are still many local fundraisers. She also greatly acknowledges the support of the Red Cross and all the individual Canadians that donated to that foundation to help her community through the crisis. Many communities to the south, including Athabasca, opened their homes to displaced residents, something she said she wants to thank everybody for.

While times are sometimes tough for her residents, Blake said her council meetings include frequent mentions of the resources people can use to get through. “Being strong, safe, and resilient together is the thing.”