First Onsite Reflects on Fort McMurray Wildfires
Five years ago, Fort McMurray, Alberta was hit by devastating wildfires. Nicknamed “The Beast” for its size and ferocity, the fire was the costliest insured natural disaster in Canada’s history, with one study finding the total costs – with lost buildings, income, and environmental damage – at nearly $9 billion.
The wildfire sparked on May 1, 2016 in a forest in the outskirts of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Bone-dry forests acted as kindling for this wildfire to spiral out of control. Within hours, the fire edged closer to residential and commercial Fort McMurray, and by May 3, it had engulfed approximately 2,400 homes in the area and 590,000 hectares of land. The wildfires resulted in the largest mass evacuation in Alberta’s history, and launched one of Canada’s most exhaustive coordinated first response efforts.
As the fire raged, First Onsite teams were on the ground to respond to and restore the community in crisis, mobilizing up to 1,500 personnel to support first responders, citizens, and businesses.
Our crews were faced with creating safe conditions for the first responders to effectively fight the fires. On behalf of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, we made air quality an essential priority, using hundreds of HEPA air filtration devices to restore air quality in critical personnel hubs, including first responder accommodations, operations centres, and offices.
Restoring Critical Infrastructure
During the early weeks of the wildfire, a coordinated team of local and national personnel on the frontlines of the wildfire sourced materials and equipment from areas as far away as Mississauga, Ontario.
First Onsite’s U.S. team, which was then Interstate Restoration, supported with project managers and administrative support personnel as well as two trailers of equipment. This event set the framework for how our company, which this year officially unified under the First Onsite name with several North American companies, would work together, across borders, to respond to large-scale events.
First Onsite staged hundreds of personnel in Edmonton for timely, large-scale mobilization. Team members were tasked with restoring critical infrastructure and services, including banks, gas stations, lodging and grocery stores in time for residential re-entry.
As residents came home to Fort McMurray, priority projects involved daycares, multi-family residential units and telecommunications facilities. The approach addressed the importance of reviving Fort McMurray’s local economy, getting essential services up and running, and getting the local population back to living and work as quickly as possible.
For many in the region, life still hasn’t gotten back to normal. Just last year, during the pandemic, the Fort McMurray community was hit by the worst flood in decades, which led to mandatory evacuations and military assistance.
The important use of technology was a key difference between the Fort McMurray wildfire and past wildfires, such as Slave Lake. Advancements such as e-permits, aerial imaging and GIS integration played an important role. Communication was also key: the real-time exchange of information between restoration teams, government, and residents was a game changer throughout the entire process.
As we continue to build and expand our cities, we need to consider how to make them not only more sustainable, but also resilient to their surroundings and environments. Integrating resilience into our building codes and practices can go a long way to helping us prepare for a natural disaster. Catastrophic events provide an opportunity to re-shape our thinking about how our communities are planned and constructed to provide a safer, more sustainable environment.
The 2021 federal budget highlighted the urgency of creating community resilience through funding to Infrastructure Canada to support disaster mitigation projects such as wildfire mitigation and rehabilitation of storm water systems. The budget also included funding for Public Safety Canada to support provincial and territorial disaster response and recovery efforts. These are a good start, however, building resilient communities will be a generational effort, much like construction of the transnational railroads were more than a century ago.
Looking Ahead into 2021
The Fort McMurray wildfires was an event remembered across the nation that created a heightened awareness of the impact of natural disasters.
First Onsite conducted the Business Preparedness Survey this spring, during a period of lockdowns amid the pandemic. The survey revealed that over the past five years, one-in-five Alberta businesses have been interrupted by wildfires, leading the country, followed by British Columbia at one-in-10.
The poll also took the pulse on business concerns about future wildfires and the impact of the Fort McMurray wildfires was apparent. While nationally only six per cent of businesses have experienced interruptions from wildfires, 17 per cent are concerned about future ones. This concern was highest in Alberta (31%) and B.C. (28%).
Fort McMurray’s fire was a major national event, one that will remain seared into the collective consciousness of all Canadians. It heightened the awareness of the damage large-scale natural disasters can cause and taught us the importance of preparedness and community support.
This year, several provinces across the country, especially in Western Canada, have experienced extremely dry conditions over the past winter, some even record-breaking. While it’s too early to predict what will come of the upcoming wildfire season – preparedness, as always, is vital to mitigate and recover from a disaster.
How We Can Help
Emergencies can strike without warning and take a business offline. Recognizing that there are risks is the first step. For companies to be properly prepared, advanced planning is very important and can help protect a business, should an event occur. Businesses that have restoration partners can minimize their downtime and are typically operational before those that do not have restoration partners in place.
Choosing First Onsite as a restoration partner means that you will have a partner who can help you build emergency contingency plans, so you are fully prepared in case of an emergency. And, when a disaster happens, you will know whom to call and feel peace of mind knowing that First Onsite will be available immediately, no matter when or where a disaster takes place.
FIRST ONSITE’s Promise
It’s a new era for our industry, and FIRST ONSITE is leading the way. On March 29, we united nine companies from Canada, the U.S., and Puerto Rico under the FIRST ONSITE name and brand. FIRST ONSITE is looking to redefine the industry with its unwavering mission to be the first to help, support and lead in the face of disaster. FIRST ONSITE is the only restoration partner businesses and homeowners will ever need.
Contact us today for a consultation. Complete the form here or call 1.877.778.6731.