Fighting back the fire

 By Michelle Leslie

Being from Alberta, Michelle Leslie is well aware of what has been happening up in Fort McMurray while massive wildfires moved toward major oil sand facilities. A lot of people don’t know how energy companies protect their natural resources and their business in the event of severe weather such as these fires…

(Cover photo by Reuters)

May 2016 began with a wildfire in Northern Alberta. A super El Nino that had been swirling up warmer waters in the Pacific brought a milder and drier winter to many parts of the province, including Fort McMurray.

Snowfall was minimal, with the heaviest one-day winter numbers coming in at just 4.3 cm (1.7 in), according to the daily data reports by Environment Canada. Dry ground combined with warm temperatures and high winds provided the perfect storm for explosive fire weather.

As the fire began on May 1, winds were moderate, with maximum gusts around 35km/hour, but by May 3, the wind gusts would more than double — reaching a peak of 72km/hr.

The worst fire in Alberta’s history, it would force almost 100,000 people to flee their homes. Pictures of ash raining down from the sky and a wall of fire surrounding fleeing evacuees highlighted the horror that was unfolding in the region.

The weather forecast worked against first responders in those early days. A week after firefighting efforts by a crew of over 1,500, around 200,000 hectares of land or almost half a million acres remained engulfed in flames.

The wildfire continues to burn and residents are uncertain when and what will await them when they return home.

The cost of the fire goes beyond Alberta’s borders. Douglas Porter, Chief Economist with the Bank of Montreal said in a release three days following the evacuations that the impact of the fire would cut the overall growth expectations for Canada’s second quarter gross domestic product (GDP) from 1.5% to zero.

Wildfire burns south of Fort McMurray (Imagine by

While the cost to the country can’t go unnoticed, the cost to Alberta is far greater. Alberta holds over 10 percent of the world’s supply of oil and the natural resources sector supplies almost one-third of the gross domestic product for the province and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Protecting the human and environmental resources that power Alberta is critical to industry.

In Alberta, energy companies are subject to guidelines and regulations lined out by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). According to the AER’s guidelines for emergency preparedness, “it is the responsibility of the licensee to determine when an emergency response plan (ERP) is required and the type of plan required.”

An emergency response plan is based on many contributing factors. Some of these factors include the size and scope of the company, what their role is within the energy industry, the size of the facility and even the proximity to established emergency services.

According to current and former oil and gas workers in Alberta, a lot of energy, expense and effort is undertaken to ensure safety when the unexpected happens. Most facilities have a rescue training program for all field personnel, while larger facilities may also have fire crews on stand-by with company-owned or contracted firefighting equipment and rescue vehicles.

One of the key companies to invest in the oil sands, Suncor has been working in Fort McMurray since the early 1960s.

“We have emergency response capabilities at our operations,” says Sneh Seetal, Media Relations and Issues Manager with Suncor. “These include firebreaks, sprinklers, fire retardant foam and pumps. We enhanced those measures in this situation and working closely with government, we received authorization to do some clearing.”

Suncor also has a team of fire risk assessment specialists on staff. Most industrial fire teams working in the petroleum industry are based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)1081, professional qualifications for fighting industrial fires.

Comparative Oil Reserves (Billion of barrels). Source: Oil & Gas Journal

On-site fire crews are subject to training sessions which can include simulations in which situations are set up at different locations within the facility, such as inside buildings, on columns and around tanks which can present crews with unique challenges.

The Suncor team in Colorado was praised by the Grand Junction Fire Chief for such efforts recently. Partnering with local firefighters, Suncor helped with specialized flammable-liquids training to better equip first response teams in the event of an industrial incident.

For contractors who work on oil and gas sites, there is training specific to both their work location and the process of the plant. Training that is often required prior to entering a site and can include First Aid, rescue training and Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems (WHMIS).

Then there are emergency response programs which are often updated yearly and include multiple action plans based on current evaluations of potential scenarios. As has been demonstrated by the efforts in Fort McMurray, disaster response requires working closely with emergency providers, various levels of government, community members, volunteers and industry.

As part of the coordinated response, Suncor has worked together with the municipality and other industry partners to fight the fire and protect the community. Additionally, oil sands companies, such as Shell, opened up their camps, offering shelter to evacuees.

The road to recovery in Fort McMurray is a long one. Once the flames are extinguished the long task of rebuilding will begin. If you can help the people of Fort McMurray, please visit the Canadian Red Cross.

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.