Why Fort McMurray residents were the real heroes of the fire crisis

Courage, compassion and blind luck helped ensure no one died in the flames, two reports suggest. Organization? Not so much.

<p>Smoke fills the air as a small plane flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta on Tuesday May 3, 2016. (Kitty Cochrane/CP )</p>

Smoke fills the air as a small plane flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta on Tuesday May 3, 2016. Raging forest fires whipped up by shifting winds sliced through the middle of the remote oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing in both directions and prompting the evacuation of the entire city. (Kitty Cochrane/CP )

Wildfire is worsening along highway 63 Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 3, 2016. (CBC/Reuters)
The wildfire along, Highway 63 on May 3 (CBC/Reuters)

Throughout last May and for months after the wildfire, there were two things you constantly heard from Fort McMurray residents: that the evacuation of the fire zone seemed a frenzied, apocalyptic terror; and what a miracle it was that nobody was killed that day in the flames.

Thirteen months after the disaster, a couple of post-wildfire reports laid bare just how much of a miracle it was. Also: how fortunate Alberta was that no firefighters on the ground or in the skies suffered casualties, and that the flames that destroyed a couple thousand homes didn’t also knock out key oil sands pipelines or other economically vital facilities. Managerial and communications problems during the wildfire’s early days increased the odds of these calamities—they were averted by some combination of nimble action, luck and, perhaps, something that only the believers believe in.

They say war is messy. A spreading wildfire can be, too, especially when high winds shift direction repeatedly over the 72 hours after trees begin combusting—as happened, starting last May 1, on Fort McMurray’s southwest edge. The wind changes surprised some local wildfire officials, but Alberta Agriculture and Forestry had forecast this would happen, according to a review for the government by MNP. The national consultancy didn’t find much evidence of contingency firefighting plans to contain or minimize damage; there was a singular focus on directly attacking the city-bound flames, with heavy reliance on air tankers. Then, the heavy equipment used to knock down forest to create a fire guard was deployed late, and nearly a day was wasted trying to cross a pipeline corridor with the bulldozers. It didn’t help that there was an additional, smaller fire to knock down that was more directly threatening one Fort McMurray neighbourhood, but good emergency managers know how to juggle multiple crises on multiple fronts.

Provincial wildfire crews were tackling the forest fires, while the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was responsible for protecting the urban areas. It turns out they weren’t using the same radio communication systems. And even though the province and Fort McMurray’s regional government set up a unified command, unity was in short supply. The provincial operations chief realized by late morning on the fateful May 3 that the wildfire had hopped the Athabasca River and firefighters would be unable to stop its rush into the city. That message didn’t reach the region’s operations chief, who “discovered the wildfire was in the community through public reports over social media,” the MNP report states.

RELATED: Why Fort McMurray will never be the same

(The reports, one completed in March and the other in May, were hastily released by the NDP government Thursday after CBC reported on a leaked copy. The province delayed release to make sure it could provide its own we’re-taking-action response in tandem with the reports, which meant they also provided a hastily arranged technical briefing to explain the province’s responses and future actions.)


Various groups controlled various flight crews trying to fight the fire, from Canadian Forces to provincially contracted air tankers–even the oil sands companies, which weren’t kept in the loop as faithfully as they might have wished. They performed their own air surveillance missions for want of prompt information and analysis from the provincial government—so much for the assumption that government always puts Big Oil’s needs first. “Without strict coordination, there are considerable safety concerns by having multiple independent entities in the same airspace, particularly when smoke creates reduced visibility,” a second report by KPMG says with considerable understatement (mercifully, pilots of the many aircraft managed not to clip each other). And because the municipal crews were on a different radio channel than provincial colleagues, firefighters couldn’t ask for air tanker support. “In some instances, they resorted to physical signals that the aircraft could see,” according to MNP.

One of Canada’s largest-ever evacuation orders started with three Fort McMurray neighbourhoods at 1:55 p.m. on May 3. Thirty-six minutes later, flames were spotted in one of those neighbourhoods; the Alberta Emergency Alert started going out three minutes later, the reports note. The region had an evacuation plan, but it did not address mass evacuation. At 11 a.m., Fire Chief Darby Allen stressed in a media briefing that evacuation is a “long way off,” though he did warn that fire conditions were more extreme than the morning’s blue skies suggested.

So how did everyone safely flee the city, despite miscommunication, insufficient planning and mixed public messaging? “Ultimately, the success of the evacuation during the wildfire was largely due to the young demographics of the community, and how the community rallied together to help one another evacuate safely,” the KPMG report says. In other words, the city lacks much of a vulnerable seniors’ population that would have needed authorities’ support in escaping. Fort McMurray is an affluent city where almost everybody owns a car or two, and the few who needed a ride had plenty of people able to help them, meaning relatively few people required city workers and public buses to ferry them to safety. And in feats that obliterated the myth the city was a get-rich-quick, sleepover town that lacked social cohesion, neighbours looked out for neighbours; some of the people who stayed behind were actually the stubborn ones who refused other’s pleas.

To be sure, the firefighters ultimately saved much of the city from burning down, and the reports praise them for protecting the city’s core infrastructure from flames—something that helped the city bring everybody back and begin recovery the following month. Authorities got a lot right, and ultimately kept fire away from the oil tanks, pipelines and plants whose damage would have greatly prolonged the industrial shutdowns. Still, when it’s universally acknowledged that climate change will make such fire threats to the boreal forest more and more routine, there’s clearly room for better preparation, coordination and prevention. Albertans had good luck and helped each other out. Next time, they’d be wise not to rely on whichever direction fortune breaks.