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The Inside Story of How Oil Sands Firms Fought the Fort McMurray Wildfires

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When it comes to community safety, fiercely competitive oil sands operators have proven they can be selfless collaborators too

BY VINCENT MCDERMOTT

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Photograph courtesy Syncrude

It was unlike any call in Tom Nash’s 32-year career with Syncrude.

As the company’s fire chief, Fort McMurray’s firefighters had asked for his help before. There was the destruction of a condo in the city’s northern suburb of Timberlea in 2014. Then there were the dozens of fires and accidents along Highway 63.

But shortly after lunch on May 3, Nash heard that wildfire No.216 southeast of the city was rapidly approaching Fort McMurray. This time it was different—very different.

Forestry workers were overwhelmed, thousands were starting to leave the city, and the flames were so close that helicopters and planes could no longer safely drop water or fire retardant on them. By 2 p.m., a pumper truck, two fire specialists and a captain were rushing towards Fort McMurray as tens of thousands fled north seeking refuge.

Calls into the city usually did not last more than a few hours. But this time, Syncrude firefighters were tasked with saving as much of the neighborhoods of Grayling Terrace and Beacon Hill, built in the 1970s following the first oil sands boom, as they could. In other parts of the city, firefighters from Shell, CNRL, Suncor and Nexen were fighting flames alongside their municipal counterparts and volunteer teams from the surrounding rural hamlets. As more than 90,000 people fled their burning city, oil companies scrambled their own firefighters, pumper trucks, emergency crews and rescue vehicles for deployment to Fort McMurray. “We would have had more loss for sure if that extra help had not been around in those immediate early hours,” said Fort McMurray’s fire chief Darby Allen. “I cannot stress how invaluable that support was and how we would not have been able to save as many properties as we did without that help.”

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Photograph courtesy Syncrude

Three days earlier, the fire was spotted to the south by an aerial forestry patrol. It was not considered an immediate threat; another fire north of the city was closer to homes. By 8 p.m. that fire was subsiding and under control, but the fire in the south slowly grew, and evacuations of some southern neighborhoods began that night.

On the morning of May 3, the wind had blown the smoky haze away from the city and plumes could no longer be seen. By the end of the day, tens of thousands of people would be scattered across the province, stranded in evacuation centers, work camps, hotels or cars.

Provincial law requires large industrial sites, like oil sands mines, to maintain a firefighting capability. Syncrude, Suncor, Shell and CNRL have a partnership with the municipality, agreeing to help each other out in an emergency. When an accident on Highway 63—the city’s only highway—happens north of the city, often the first responders are volunteer firefighters from Fort McKay or the private crews, which all coordinate resources in an emergency. At its peak, as much as 25 percent of the crews battling the May wildfire came from private companies.

Nash estimates these calls are sent out an average of 50 times a year, ranging from medical assistance to an out-of-control house fire. When this happens, it is not uncommon to see Fort McMurray firefighters working with a pumper truck with a Shell or Syncrude logo on the side.

“Technology-wise, I would say we’re on a very similar footing,” adds Allen. “I can’t think of any other municipality that has this type of arrangement with so many outside professional firefighters.”

Similar aid agreements are not uncommon between neighboring cities and towns throughout Canada. What is rare is the nature of the partnership. Most communities operate on a fee-for-service agreement, meaning any outside firefighters arriving need to be compensated by the host municipal government. That topic is never brought up between Fort McMurray and the four oil companies. There is a chain of command, so there is no confusion over who calls the shots, and the firefighters frequently train together.

The combo of full-time firefighters in Fort McMurray, volunteer fire departments in rural hamlets, and oil companies’ teams means the firefighting capability surrounding Fort McMurray punches well above its weight. “Our guys are trained as well, or better, as the responders you will find anywhere else in the country,” says Nash. “We’re trained to fight liquid fuel fires and the interior side. Our guys are highly trained and equipped.”

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“I can’t think of any other municipality that has this type of arrangement with so many outside professional firefighters.” – Darby Allen, Fort McMurray fire chief

Photograph courtesy Syncrude

And it cuts both ways: Municipal personnel helped with rescue and firefighting efforts when an upgrader exploded at Nexen’s Long Lake site in January, killing two workers, although it’s unusual for municipal and volunteer firefighters to respond to an industrial accident.

The industry response to the wildfire that was named “The Beast” due its ferocity was massive and unprecedented. Syncrude deployed more than 60 firefighters and emergency staff to Fort McMurray, and dozens of fire trucks, supply and rescue vehicles. Suncor had dozens of fire crews scattered throughout the city, and provided medics, two pump trucks, two rescue aircraft and a water truck. Heavy equipment operators began making fire breaks.

The relief effort wasn’t just on the ground. North of the city, private airfields became the lifeline for the tens of thousands stranded in camps and work sites. The Canadian Forces had C-130 Hercules planes, packed with supplies, landing at private airstrips throughout the oil sands. By the end of the first week, WestJet and the Canadian Forces would fly thousands of workers and Fort McMurray residents out of airstrips at CNRL and Shell Albian sites.

Logistically, everything went as well as it could have on such short notice, although oil companies are still absorbing what lessons they learned from the fire and the evacuation of an entire city. There will be lessons to take away for future wildfire preparedness—after all, this was the second oil sands wildfire in two years. Syncrude, Husky, Imperial, Nexen and Suncor all partially or fully suspended operations during the fire.

“I’m sure there will be lessons for all of us that we will need to implement, not just from a firefighting perspective, but also when looking at infrastructure and construction” says Allen.

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