Friday, May 6, 2016

Training For Our Mission

Forewarning: This is a long post....

We have been going through a lot of Self-Reliance training in preparation for our mission (see header for link).  However, what we did not expect was to get some very hands on experience with being self-reliant and being prepared.  This is the story of:

The Fort McMurray, Alberta Wildfires

One of our new friends in Australia, Sister Meyers, saw on the news what was happening with a devastating wildfire in northern Alberta.  I was just going to tell her the "short" version, but it evolved into this description...

Hello Sister Myers,

The "short" story is that I went up to Fort McMurray for work this past Sunday, saw the beginnings of a wildfire and posted a photo about it on Facebook, got evacuated to a safer place in Fort McMurray the same night (yep, it’s always at midnight or 1 am), worked the next day (Monday) at the Syncrude oil sand plant about 30 km north of Fort McMurray, stayed in town that night, went back to Syncrude the next day (very unwisely leaving all my clothes, toiletries and medications at the hotel), then was not allowed to return to Fort McMurray after that because the fires had spread aggressively that day and the area in which we were staying was being evacuated.  We were put up in an old camp at Syncrude that had been shut down for a while - I got a small room (maybe 2.1 m by 3 m) with a bed, no sheets, blankets or pillow, initially not even any water in the communal bathrooms, and I was happy to have that.  In some rooms there were entire families, the kids on the bed and the parents trying to sleep on the floor.  The next day, Syncrude tried to bring food in for about the 3000 people (individuals, families with kids and pets, etc.) that had showed up at their site from town, fleeing the fire (that was just the initial wave), but only about a 1/3 got fed breakfast.  Everyone in the camp was supposed to be bussed south to Edmonton that morning, but that plan fell through when the only highway out of town was closed by the RCMP due to the fire.  We were told around 10 am that lunch would be delivered at 3:30 pm.

That’s when I decided I’d better get myself out, or I’d be there for another several days or even a week, under unpleasant (but reasonable) conditions.  I phoned two friends, one each at oil sand plants further north, whose companies had their own air strips, and managed to get all of our group (about 10) out of Fort McMurray that night.  Turns out both of those companies were accepting anyone who came to their site and were trying to help them - each flew about 15 to 20 jet loads of people out that day (maybe as many as 5-6000 people between them, some of those being “non-essential” employees).  It was “first come, first served”, with some priority to families with children.  What a zoo - people milling about everywhere, but waiting their turn and overall still orderly - no pushing or shoving or cutting in line - that’s generally not the Canadian way of doing things.  The companies provided holding areas with chairs, tables, water, food and sanitary facilities.  They also provided power - remarkably, the several cell phone systems in the area were still functioning, which is one of the reasons for the calm - people could contact other family members in town and further away, and could monitor the news services to find out what was happening.  Anyways, the group I was with flew out about 7:00 pm that night and the other group that went to a different site flew out about 11:30 pm that night.

Overall, 88,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray.  I think about 1/3 of that number got out to the south of town, running a gauntlet of fire on both sides of the highway, until it was shut down.  It is a 5 hour drive through pretty much wilderness to get to Edmonton.  The few gas stations along the way quickly ran out of gas and many were just stranded along the side of the road for several days.  Shell Canada sent a huge tanker truck up the road giving away gas to get people moving again, and many good hearted people just got in their trucks and drove up the highway, bringing as much food, water and fuel as they pack in their vehicle, to help out.

The other say 2/3 of the people were forced to go north of town.  The highway goes as far as the various open pit oil sand plants - Syncrude, Suncor (2 locations), Shell, CNRL, and Imperial Oil.  Each of these have hotel-like camp accommodation for perhaps 5000 people that they use for contractors and for “shut downs”, when a lot of workers are brought in for general maintenance on their plants.  These companies sent all their non-essential staff away (most of them run fly-in, fly-out operations) so that they could accept the waves of “refugees” from the town.  They didn’t all come at once because the town was evacuated in stages as the wild fires spread.  At the same time, the companies who had fly-in, fly-out operations were trying to send the refugees out as quickly as they could, to free up room for the new ones arriving at their gates.  Many people spent evening(s) in their truck on a jammed highway with children and pets.

I believe finally today the fires moved away from the highway and the RCMP was able to open it up and send people south through town and to Edmonton.  Suncor set up a temporary fuelling station north of town to make sure everyone had enough gas or diesel to get to Edmonton.

The initial emergency responders, fire fighters and RCMP were amazing at their jobs, but were soon overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.  Fire fighters from all over Canada and from places as far away as Mexico, alerted to the problem, started showing up to relieve those who carried the load for the first few days.  About the same time, the federal and provincial governments started providing relief and organizing communities along the way to Edmonton and in Edmonton and Calgary to take and look after the evacuees.  We owe a huge thank you to these people, but particularly to those who were first on the scene.

They are not sure about the total damage count, but it looks to me like about 15% of the city was destroyed (by latest count, an estimated 2400 homes).  Some housing subdivisions were very hard hit, including one called Beacon Hill where the LDS church is located.  Talking to another friend up there who is a church member, the bishopric in one of the two wards there had just been changed the weekend before the fires started (what a “first week on the job experience”).  80% of Beacon Hill was razed by fire, but the church and adjacent school, and a very few homes nearby, are still standing.  It looks like the church has some scorch marks on one side but it did not burn down.  These areas are still all closed so no one has been able to go in to check it out.

***  Update:  Here is a link to a video taken by someone driving through that area:
Beacon Hill Devastation  ***

However, there isn’t anyone there to check it out - the entire town of 88,000 has been evacuated either south or north.  Except for the emergency responders, it is a ghost town.  Photos are being posted on Facebook and other social media now of people living in vehicles or tents they brought along, families with pets being flown out of town, etc.  As I mentioned, many people had literally minutes warning to evacuate as winds and hot weather suddenly drove the fires in a new direction.  I’ve seen videos of people in their truck or car driving down some of the main connector roads onto the highway, with fires burning immediately around them on both sides of the road, and a sad video of a guy leaving his house while the fire flared up right behind his house and started it on fire, (Fort McMurray is a new town carved out of Boreal forest, so the trees come right up to the edge of every subdivision).

Lots of stories of heroism, patience, support and coordination by all.  Amazingly no person or pet died, as far as we know, and two babies were even born by mothers who had been evacuated from the local hospital to Syncrude the same night I was there.  I have to say, though, that if it hadn’t been for the huge capacity and quick action of all the oil sand mining companies, this fire would have been a disaster of an entirely different proportion.  No one at any of these companies asked “who do you work for?” or “why are you here?”.  They just accepted everyone who came through their doors, supported them, and helped them get out of town.  And they had the capacity and training to do so.

I’ve used the terms “refugees” and “evacuees” purposely.  At first it felt like we were refugees but later most of us were really evacuees because we had somewhere to go.  But many living in Fort McMurray (I don’t know the number, but I’d guess 20%) are immigrants from other countries and some of them truly refugees from those countries.  Fort McMurray was their only home.  They have nowhere else to live.  The provincial government is trying to sort that out, with the help of the Canadian Red Cross, but all of these people will be supported in whatever way is needed, for as long as is needed.

In the meantime, the fires still burn out of control and have caused the evacuation of several, small nearby communities (within 10 to 15 km of Fort McMurray), mostly to the south.  Some of the oil sand operations (not open pit; they are all north of town; but what is called “in situ” developments south of town)  have had to evacuate their facilities as well.  The fire has consumed over 200,000 hectares of forest and is still voracious as hot, dry weather continues.  It is not possible to control a fire of this size, but only to try to direct it a bit and in so doing save some of the critical infrastructure.  Amazingly, almost none of the downtown area with all the hospital, government buildings, shops, water treatment plant, and most general services was damaged.  What has been the hardest hit are the peripheral residential subdivisions.

Albertans are a resilient bunch.  I haven’t heard anyone say “that’s it!”.  While many have lost their homes, they are all saying “This is our home - we’ll be back and we’ll rebuild”.  I’m not sure exactly when that will be - it is likely not going to happen for several weeks.  With the cooperation of the weather (colder temperatures and some rain) and with the efforts of the fire fighters, the fires will eventually die down, officials will get in and assess damage, and eventually, selectively let people back to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to carry on.  It will take a huge effort yet by all those resources that have so far been stretched beyond their limit.

I think this is the biggest natural disaster that Alberta has ever experienced.  To say that we have learned a few things is a gross understatement.

I ask myself how, given my knowledge of the developing situation, I could have left all of my personal goods, including important medications, in a vulnerable location.  They are still there - I don’t expect to retrieve them for weeks.  I ask myself why I didn’t leave right away, when it became evident that it might get out of hand but hadn’t yet done so.  I’ve thought hard about that, particularly given all the training in Preparedness that we have received from the church, taken to heart and practised over the years, and given that we are now preparing to go on a church mission to teach self-reliance to people.  The only answer I could come up with is that it is human (or at least my) nature to deny the seriousness of a situation and to tell ourselves that things won’t get out of hand.  Obviously they did here, and they do all the time in people’s lives in different ways.  So what I have learned is to be more alert, observant, and thoughtful, and start practising those emergency response skills that I have.  I've also learned is better to be pre-emptive and find out afterwards that you over-reacted than to wait and see what will happen, as in the latter case you will always be caught doing too little.

You might say it’s been good training for our mission :>)