My Experience with the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire, Part 1

May 13, 2021 | On Leadership

Last week marked the 5th anniversary of the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire. Needless to say, this was a day that changed our community forever.

Oftentimes, I am asked what it was like to be here on that day. I thought now would be a great opportunity to share the experience of that day with others.

This blog will give a timeline of my experience being in Fort McMurray during the fires. Hopefully, anyone curious about what it was like finds this insightful.

The blog is broken into two parts because of length. Part 2 will come next week!

Ask Tim more about the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire!

This is the first time sitting down to document the timeline of that day, something that I’ve always wanted to do to leave a trail of information for my daughters. Thank you for providing the forum to do so.

Apologies in advance for writing in the first person more than you would usually see in this blog!

Some Job Context

To give this story a better context, I was working for the largest local bus company. We transported workers from their homes in Fort McMurray to the oil plant sites they worked on 25-80 kilometers away from the city. My role in the company at this time was as their Operations Centre Manager.

This meant supporting a team of approximately 25 Dispatchers, Schedulers, Managers, and operations administrators. This team was responsible for coordinating the 24/7 operations of these over 450 buses and drivers, so you can imagine the wildfires impacted our team greatly.

The video below is from the company detailing our efforts during the wildfire. Many of the Operations Centre Team that I worked with are in this video, and it brings a lot of pride!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

This was the day the fire started, but 2 days before Fort McMurray would be evacuated. At this point, the fire was still approximately 15 kilometres from Fort McMurray. The beginning point of the fire was closest to one of our locations on the south side of Fort McMurray.

Because of the proximity, a group chat on BlackBerry Messenger began between the operations management team about what our response should be. Should we evacuate the buses at that location already? Should we wait? Where would we evacuate them to?

My personal opinion was to move them, others opted to wait. It turned out neither response was perfectly right. But for the evening, we left the buses on our property.

It was time to sleep for the night. However, a mandatory evacuation order would be issued for some neighbourhoods in the south area of town after heading to sleep.

Monday, May 2, 2016, early AM

In the middle of the night, that evacuation order would be removed and changed to a shelter in place order.

At this time, my home was still in Calgary and I commuted weekly to Fort McMurray. The flight to Fort McMurray would leave Calgary at 6 AM every Monday, arriving just in time to make it to the office for work.

On that flight, I recall feeling uncertain about heading back to Fort McMurray. Usually, when forest fires were around the town, they would subside without incident thanks to the incredible Wildfire and Forestry teams here.

But this time felt different. Likely because it was the first time that a fire caused us to consider evacuating one of our properties as it did the night before.

There were several times in the past taking this flight where fires in the area would create smoke so thick that the airplane couldn’t land in Fort McMurray. This could happen even when the fire was under control and posed no threat to the city itself. When this happened, the plane would turn around back to Calgary and I would rent a car to drive to Fort McMurray.

During that entire flight, I wondered if we would even land. The potential of being away from the team and unable to support them properly during a looming natural disaster was worrying. The team would have lots of questions and anxiety. They needed someone to support them.

Most Mondays, this flight was a great opportunity for a nap. The worry this time around made that impossible.

The airplane did indeed land, which likely deceived me in to thinking the fire wasn’t threatening Fort McMurray itself.

Monday, May 2, 2016, throughout the day

We spent the rest of Monday monitoring conditions.

There was a reason for optimism, even though the fire was about a kilometre from some houses on the south of town. The fire was one square kilometre in size and the wind was blowing it away from the endangered neighbourhoods.

We went to sleep that night with hope.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016, AM

Overnight the fire grew, but it was still moving away from the city. We still had reason hope!

We were monitoring closely, and it still didn’t seem like we would be affected. The sky was red and full of smoke, however, this wasn’t uncommon to see in Fort McMurray at this time of year. Often we would experience these conditions from wildfires that were some distance away.

My pattern recognition from experience made it feel like it was just another distant fire blowing smoke over our city.

This time, that fire was right on our doorstep!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016, Afternoon

I took a late lunch that day. Some members of our team and I had planned to play golf that afternoon.

Over lunch, I needed to head to a registry to renew the license plates on my truck. The registry was in the downtown area of Fort McMurray. Next to downtown, there is a large hill and the Abasand neighbourhood sits on top of that area.

When walking into the registry, the air smelled of smoke and you could see a bit of a red glow as mentioned above. These conditions had not visibly changed since morning. Things appeared rather calm at the top of the Abasand hill.

The registry had the local news station turned on. Within a few minutes, we all heard an urgent announcement on the radio that the south end of town was under a mandatory evacuation order.

The first thought running through my head was that this meant the fire was getting closer, but that this announcement was being made under an abundance of caution. Usually, these orders are given while the threat is still far enough away for residents to have enough time to evacuate.

When leaving the registry, I looked up to the top of the Abasand hill to see the intense glow of a pillar of fire. When seeing this, I thought again the fire was further away than it appeared given a wildfires ability to look closer than it was. What I didn’t realize was that the Abasand neighbourhood was on fire!

While on the way back to work, I called the colleagues who I had planned to golf with and told them that it was best we cancel golf that day. There was too much smoke and it wasn’t healthy to be outside in that smoke. Little did we realize, the golf course was on fire too!

When arriving back at the office, the team was being inundated with phone calls from drivers letting us know they wouldn’t make it to work that day because they had been evacuated.

At this point, it was finally clear that various neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray were actually on fire! Many of our drivers were evacuating in their vehicles with the fire right next to the road. The evacuation order wasn’t out of caution; it was because the fire had moved quickly into peoples’ homes!

Some drivers had already arrived early for work that afternoon. Those who arrived early and were not evacuated and able to continue working were sent early to the plant sites to await instructions. We knew that there would be people working at the plants who had been evacuated who would need to be transported to a safe location once they were finished work.

Our HR Team had an incredible idea to allow Team Members to bring their families to our offices while they went to the plant sites to help with the evacuation. They had Disney movies, water, and snacks ready for our families. The office across from mine became an animal shelter for peoples’ pets, as well!

Our Scheduling and Dispatching team recruited others to help us contact all the drivers in our company to see who could come in early. Anyone who could come in early was sent to a plant site to await instruction.

We had a shop on the south side of town that was threatened by evacuation orders. We decided to have the buses at that shop moved to the airport thinking it was far enough away that they would be safe there.

In the meantime, I called everyone in our Operations Centre Team to make sure they were okay, if they needed anything, and if they were able to come in and help us coordinate the evacuation.

At this point, I had no bag packed with a change of clothes or any of my important personal belongings. Fortunately, my roommate worked with me and had his motorbike at work. He rode his motorbike to our home in searing wildfire heat to get us our ‘go bags’. We still recount how crazy it was to have ridden a motorbike in that heat! He was a great roommate and would go through a wall for his friends.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016, late afternoon

By this point, more neighbourhoods were being added to the evacuation list as the fire grew and threatened more areas.

Evacuees were instructed to leave town using the only highway in and out of town: Highway 63. Based on where they lived, they were to head either south or north. Traffic was reversed on the divided highway to allow more traffic volume to be flow in whichever direction they were instructed to.

Those who evacuated south were sent to emergency shelters in various centres south, such as Edmonton. If they evacuated north, they were headed towards the plant sites where they would be sheltered in a work camp. People needed to be sent in both directions to clear them out of harm’s way as fast as possible.

Many people in areas not yet evacuated began to evacuate or at least get prepared to evacuate. The highways were jammed. It was taking people literally over 3-4 hours to move from their home to the edge of town. People were waiting in standstill traffic while a wall of fire was next to the roads they were waiting on.

Once our Operations Centre Team was set up to get as many people and drivers as they could, my job was to go between our team and our HQ Board Room for higher-level information and strategic planning sessions. For the next several hours, I would go between the board room and our Operations Centre Team approximately every 15 minutes to gather and relay information to each group.

By 6:30 PM, the entire of Fort McMurray was placed under mandatory evacuation.

Although the entire city was told to evacuate, reliable information on which specific homes had been destroyed was spotty at best. As the fire grew, the list of destroyed homes grew faster than anyone could officially update it with accuracy.

People were posting on social media that certain streets or neighbourhoods were decimated, only to be followed by competing posts that they were actually okay. It became important to tune out social media and focus on facts we were given from official information outlets.

That said, the reliable information we had was that the fire had more or less surrounded the area of the house I was renting at the time. We had every reason to believe it was only a matter of time before the house would burn down if it hadn’t already done so.

There was also no time to dwell on it or worry about it. People needed help.  Luckily, anything of sentimental value was in Calgary anyways. This assumption became reality and I immediately put it out of my mind and moved on.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016, evening

The rest of the night was spent sending buses to where people needed them. We sent ‘sweeper buses’ around the city to pick up anyone who may have been stranded and either brought them to an emergency shelter downtown or our office location.

The fire closed the highway going south as it expanded. Anyone who had evacuated to a work camp north of town would not be able to use the highway to escape to a major centre south of Fort McMurray. Those who had been working and were loaded on a bus to wait for instruction at the end of their shift were taken to work camps for the night.

Throughout the night, many of the people who had assembled at our offices were taken north to work camps Some were taken south to the emergency shelter in Edmonton when the fire was tame enough to allow some of our buses through. While this gave us hope, unfortunately, the fire wouldn’t remain tame long enough to let everyone who was north of it use the highway safely. Camps remained the safest place for evacuees to the north.

As for us, we received special permission to stay in town despite the mandatory evacuation order. We needed to remain in our office to continue to assist city officials in sweeping the city. We also continued to field calls from clients getting updates and receiving instruction.

By the time we were able to catch some sleep, it was at least 2 AM. We all slept in our offices on the floors.

Tomorrow would be a new day.

To be continued…

To recap, the entire city of Fort McMurray has been evacuated due to the wildfire and entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed.

Every citizen of Fort McMurray was miraculously able to evacuate safely. Evacuees were sent south to emergency shelters in Edmonton or north to work camps near plant sites. Those residents who were already working at a plant site were also placed in work camps.

Our team stayed in the city to continue to assist with the evacuation sleeping on our office floors. I thought my rental house had burned down.

Next week, we’ll continue the story with how we responded in the days immediately following the wildfire. We’ll then recount how we continued to support the city of Fort McMurray during the 4 weeks it was evacuated.

Hopefully, this blog was interesting and insightful to anyone who wondered what it was like to be part of that day.

If you have any questions about the wildfire, please do reach out!

Tim Dyck
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