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The Fort McMurray Wildfire
The ‘Beast’ of 2016
The fire was first spotted about 15 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray by an airborne forestry crew on May 1. Its technical name – MWF-009 – signified it was the ninth wildfire of the season in the area, and it was nothing extraordinary at the time.

But over the next two days, the wildfire grew rapidly, fueled by high winds and a tinder-dry boreal forest. On May 3, the fire raged into the city itself and forced more than 80,000 residents to evacuate.

In the ensuing weeks, the fire spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan, eventually burning about 590,000 hectares. The Fort McMurray wildfire, which came to be known as the ‘Beast’, was the costliest disaster in Canadian history. It destroyed about 2,400 homes and buildings with damages estimated at $3.5 billion.

More than half a dozen CCIL members have operations in the area, and they and their employees were directly affected. Laboratories located in Edmonton and Calgary also felt the impact. Lab Watch talked with some of the individuals whose lives were caught up in these events. Here are their stories.

When Tyson Tremblay fled Fort McMurray in his truck, he packed lightly, thinking he’d be gone only a day or two. The manager of Amec Foster Wheeler’s local lab had no idea that he and the 20 employees of the facility wouldn’t be returning for weeks.

Tremblay first stayed at an oil sands campsite north of the city. He was able to drive to Edmonton a couple of days later, and then flew to Winnipeg where he and his wife remained during the evacuation. His condominium in Fort McMurray was completely destroyed, and today he is renting an apartment.

 Tyson Tremblay at burned-out condo

He says his most vivid memories are of people reaching out to help others and the many acts of kindness he witnessed. “People at our office and lab in Edmonton, for example, were opening up their homes and taking in those who had nowhere else to go,” he notes. As well, the company helped support relief efforts by matching individual donations to the Canadian Red Cross.

Nancy Coles also lost her house to the wildfire. The quality assurance coordinator works at the Maxxam Analytics lab north of Fort
McMurray, but lives in the city. She and her family were able to reach their camper near Lac La Biche (south of Fort Mac) after driving all night in traffic.

“That morning, we learned our home had burned to the ground. We lost pretty much everything. It was our first home, and it was gone,” she says.

Nothing left of Nancy Coles’ home

Nancy, her husband Kerry, and their 4-year-old son Blake spent the next four weeks living in the camper. “The local residents were incredible in their support,” she recalls.   
“They brought us water, food, even children’s toys.”

The family is now renting in Fort McMurray and hopes to rebuild. Nancy notes that Maxxam has “been there for its employees throughout this ordeal,” paying them during the period, helping to relocate people, and supporting fundraising efforts.

As a disaster relief volunteer with Canadian Red Cross, Brenna Brown was asked to help set up emergency reception centres and shelters in Calgary and Edmonton to handle the thousands of evacuees coming from Fort McMurray and the surrounding area.

Brenna Brown at Red Cross Centre

Her employer, Paracel Laboratories, generously granted her a paid leave of absence, and for the next two weeks, Brenna worked full time on coordinating the huge influx of displaced persons.  “Often, all they had when they arrived were the clothes on their backs. They were frightened, anxious and confused.”

She has been a Red Cross volunteer on other disaster relief projects in the past, notably the Slave Lake fire of 2011 and the floods in 2013, but nothing on the scale of the ‘Beast.’ “The numbers were staggering, and the work was intense,” Brenna explains.

Even after resuming her job at Paracel, Brenna continued to volunteer a few hours a day at the reception centre until people started to return to Fort McMurray. “I’m always motivated by the sense of community that emerges during these times of crisis, by the outpouring of support from ordinary Canadians. That’s why I do it,” she says. Almost $300 million was raised in individual donations and government contributions to the Canadian Red Cross for the victims of the wildfire.

Many laboratories in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as other locations in Canada, were busy during the wildfire and the weeks that followed with the critically important work of testing the large volume of samples from the Fort McMurray area. ALS Environmental and Maxxam, for example, were active on this front.

The work focused on testing air, water, soil and ash to identify any risk to the health and safety of the public, firefighters, and recovery crews. In particular, the analyses screened for the presence of harmful chemicals such as dioxins and furans, metals, inorganics, petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

One of the first CCIL members on the ground in Fort McMurray in the immediate aftermath of the wildfire was GHD, a global engineering consulting company that has a specialized emergency response group (GHD FIRST). It had a team of about 20 people helping clients – primarily oil and gas companies, insurance firms, and commercial businesses – assess damages, conduct industrial hygiene and toxicological assessments, ensure worker safety, and plan recovery.

Robert Fewchuk, GHD’s emergency response manager in western Canada, says his job has taken him to floods, fires, large scale environmental emergencies including crude oil releases, chemical fires, explosions, and train derailments, “but never anything like this.” The situation was so dangerous and unpredictable that “a fire-fighting team and helicopter were on constant standby during the first few days of the response just in case we had to get out.”

The fire around Fort McMurray was so big that it was visible from space. The “Beast” was so large and hot that it created its own weather system – sucking in the wind and increasing its speed all on its own. Through a rare phenomenon 
called pyrocumulonimbus, the blaze even generated thunderstorms and lightning. 

Credit:  NASA Earth Observatory image

We thank those who shared their stories and provided information and background for this article. Our best wishes go out to the residents of Fort McMurray, and we honour the CCIL-member companies and their employees who so generously came to the aid of those in need.

Lab Watch is a quarterly newsletter produced by the Canadian Council of Independent Laboratories. By opening this ‘window’ on our sector, we hope to engage government, industry and other stakeholders in an informed discussion of the issues.

CCIL represents the independently-owned, private-sector testing laboratories in Canada. Operating more than 330 facilities across the country, our members help ensure the quality and safety of highways, bridges, buildings, other infrastructure, manufactured goods, water, food, soil, air and more.

Megan Stephens  
Copyright © 2016,Canadian Council of Independent Laboratories. All rights reserved.

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