A wildfire is one of Mother Nature’s deadliest dangers. It can start in the blink of an eye and, if conditions are right, grow at an astounding pace to cover a massive amount of territory, wreaking destruction as it grows. Nowhere is this more evident than in the wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray, Alberta and the surrounding area in may of 2016. In only a few days, it singlehandedly destroyed a major section of Fort McMurray, and reached northward into the oil sands, halting oil production for weeks. The toll the fire took will have an impact on the province and the people of the area for a long time to come. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the toll on human life was minimal. The government and community help to evacuate close to 100 thousand people, and the only casualties due to the fire and evacuation was due to a single car accident. Careful community and government coordination of evacuation and recovery efforts have made it possible to move a large number of people without casualties, though some say that the process could have begun earlier, which would have caused less panic and trauma.
About Fort McMurray
Fort McMurray is a town close to the oil sands of Alberta, nestled in the heart of a large forested area. (Markusoff, May 12, 2016). It is part of the larger Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo) which comprises the town along with many surrounding areas. The mayor of the municipality is Melissa Blake, who leads a counsel of 10.
Timeline of events Surrounding the Wildfire
On May 1, 2016, fire fighters were engaged in fighting a few small fires. The fires threatened some of the communities surrounding Fort McMurray, and these communities were evacuated. (Markusoff, May 12, 2016. Canadian Press, June 1, 2016). These evacuations became voluntary the next day, and people were told they could return to their homes. The fires seemed to have calmed down, though Darcy Allen, the chief firefighter for the Fort McMurray region, said to stay wary.
On Tuesday may 3, the weather became even hotter and dryer than it had been in and the fires grew exponentially. Allen held a press conference in the morning to let people know to be aware and that things were likely to become dangerous. (Canadian Press, June 1, 2016). Beginning that afternoon, evacuation orders for several regions of Fort McMurray began to be issued, as smoke grew and the fire came closer. (Markusoff, May 12, 2016). By 4 PM, the entire town was evacuated. By that time, however, the fire was so bad that there were walls of flame up to 30 feet high on either side of the roads down which the panicking evacuees were travelling. (Markusoff, May 12, 2016). By thee end of the day the entire town had been evacuated, some people having to leave their cars on the highway because of the jam of traffic and escape as much as they could on foot. All told over 88 thousand people were forced to leave their homes due to the wildfire. The province declared a state of emergency in the region.
In the days following the evacuation of Fort McMurray, oil production was forced to cease due to the fires. The following week the camps north of the town were also evacuated. (Canadian Press, June 1, 2016).
On May 16, the local and provincial governments began to discuss returning to the area. They said that the return would be done in stages, beginning on June 1. The return would be strictly on a voluntary basis, and would depend on the status of the fire. (Canadian Press, June 1, 2016). At some points the return date was reconsidered, because at times the air quality in the town reached 38 on a scale of 1-10 because of smoke. In the end, however, the June 1 date stayed as the initial return date for those areas of the town not as severely affected by the fire. In the last days of May and the first days of June, the oil companies restarted production.
On June 10th, the Alberta government issued a release stating that the fire, which eventually grew to encompass 589000 Hectares of forest, was at least 70% in control and no longer threatened the Fort McMurray area. (Alberta Government, June 10, 2016). At that point, however, the town was still rebuilding and services were only gradually coming back online. People were still being advised not to return until the hospital was completely restored to full services if they had chronic or serious medical conditions. (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Government of Alberta, June 10, 2016). Services are still being restored as of the writing of this paper, and some will not be fully functional until September.
The 88 thousand evacuees from the Fort McMurray area had a choice to go either north or south. If they went north, they ended up in the oil camps, which were luckily not at full capacity and able to take them in, at least on a temporary basis. (Derworiz, June 10, 2016). They also went to first nations communities. If they went south, they were eventually transported to Edmonton or Lac La Biche. (Derworiz, June 10, 2016). Those who went north were also transported to southern centers in the days following the evacuation.
Most give credit to the community, the government, and local industry for the success of the evacuation effort. The government had plenty of past experience to draw on in terms of planning for emergencies such as the wildfire, including a major fire in the community in 2011. (Derworiz, June 10, 2016). Because of this experience, the government was able to quickly and efficiently deal with the need for evacuation, and had thin infrastructure in place to help the evacuees once they reached safety. Local industry was critical to the evacuation effort because they helped to transport evacuees and because they were able to help those who travelled north immediately after the evacuation. The community was also critical because of volunteer efforts to help those stranded on the roads. Volunteers brought gas for those who ran out, and coffee and refreshments for stranded individuals.
Once evacuees found themselves at the evacuation centers around the province, they were able to draw on debit cards to meet their initial emergency needs. Funding for these cards was provided by the Alberta government, and by the Red Cross who raised 60 million dollars by the end of the first week, an amount which was matched by the provincial and federal governments. Volunteers helped to staff these centers and provide meals and resources for the evacuees.
The local government of the area has come under criticism surrounding their handling the wildfire evacuation. Some say that since they knew of the danger on May 1, they should have made the evacuation mandatory instead of voluntary at that point, which would have allowed people more time to get what they needed, and made the conditions far less dangerous as the evacuation was carried out. (Markusoff, May 12, 2016). Some have also criticized the government for not involving private industry in the fire fighting and evacuation. They say that the oil companies have enough water tankers to surround the town and could have done more to minimize the damage. (Markusoff May 12, 2016). Though 85% of the town was not completely destroyed and there was minimal loss of life, many believe that even more could have been done to minimize the damage that was done and to make the evacuation process easier and less traumatic than it was.
Though the wildfire caused a massive amount of damage and the economic impact will be felt for some time to come, the community of Fort McMurray and the province of Alberta came together to help all of those who were effected by the fire. The Fact that there was so little loss of life is a blessing and a credit to those who organized the mass evacuation of so many. Still there are lessons to be learned from this event in terms of how to carry out an efficient evacuation of so many people.
- Canadian Press (June 1, 2016). A Timeline of the Wild Fire that Consumed Most of Fort McMurray and the Recovery. The Chronical Herald. http://thechronicleherald.ca/canada/1369082-a-timeline-of-a-wildfire-that-consumed-parts-of-fort-mcmurray-and-the-recovery. Retrieved July 18, 2016.
- Derworiz, Colette (May 10, 2016). Risk Management Planning Helped Fort McMurray Evacuation. Calgary Herald. http://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/risk-management-planning-helped-fort-mcmurray-evacuation. Retrieved July 18, 2016.
- Government of Alberta (June 10, 2016). Final Update 39: 2016 Wildfires (June 10 at 4:30 PM). Retrieved July 18, 2016. Alberta.ca. http://www.alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=41701E7ECBE35-AD48-5793-1642C499FF0DE4CF
- Markusoff, J., McDonald, N, and Gillis, C. (May 12, 2016). Fort McMurray Fire: The Great Escape. Maclean’s. http://www.macleans.ca/fort-mcmurray-fire-the-great-escape/. Retrieved July 18, 2016.
- Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Mayor and Counsellors. Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. http://www.rmwb.ca/Municipal-Government/Mayor-and-Council.htm. Retrieved July 18, 2016.