Lessons Learned from ATCO and the Fort McMurray Wildfires

It was another unseasonably hot, dry, spring day in northeastern Alberta, with record-setting temperatures logged in Fort McMurray, the heart of Canada’s oil sands. The city of 88,000 was sweltering in the 32.8C-heat, surrounded by a parched forest following a winter with relatively little snowfall.

ATCO was paying close attention to the region on May 1, 2016. The gas and electricity utility supplies approximately 23,000 natural gas customers in Fort McMurray, provides power to the city and surrounding area, including oil sands operations. ATCO also operates several work camps in the area. That Sunday, their teams had been tracking a wildfire a couple of kilometres southwest of the city that had forced the temporary evacuation of several neighbourhoods.

“That Sunday, ATCO had been tracking a wildfire a couple of kilometres southwest of the city that had forced the temporary evacuation of several neighbourhoods.”

“That Sunday, ATCO had been tracking a wildfire a couple of kilometres southwest of the city that had forced the temporary evacuation of several neighbourhoods.”

The next day the wind changed, pushing walls of flames west and north of Fort McMurray. By 5 p.m. Tuesday May 3, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for 12 neighbourhoods – three-quarters of the city. Less than two hours later, the entire city and several nearby communities were in full flight mode from a forest fire that would become known as “the Beast.” The wild, unpredictable fire became so intense, it created its own micro-environment complete with clouds, lightning and wind, eventually devouring 1.5-million acres of forests in Alberta and Saskatchewan, before being declared under control two and a half months later.

“For us, the biggest objective those first few days was ensuring the facilities were safe and weren’t going to be causing any danger or harm to the emergency response crews responding to the fires,” Ryan Germaine, Vice President, District Operations – Gas Distribution, ATCO , said.

Germaine had been in contact with his ATCO team in Fort McMurray from Edmonton since the wildfire started that weekend, going over existing emergency plans for the business units just in case. On May 3, ATCO invoked its crisis response plan and sent up senior executives, Germaine included, to look things over and report back to Edmonton. He stayed three weeks, coming back once or twice for a change of clothes.

“For us, the biggest objective those first few days was ensuring the facilities were safe and weren’t going to be causing any danger or harm to the emergency response crews.”

“For us, the biggest objective those first few days was ensuring the facilities were safe and weren’t going to be causing any danger or harm to the emergency response crews.”

No one anticipated how rapidly and unpredictably the wildfire would spread, he said, noting at one point, it jumped the river which splits the town, a distance of almost a kilometre, from bank to bank. On that first day, updates went from “everything’s under control” in terms of no change, to entire neighbourhoods being engulfed, in a matter of an hour, he recalled.

ATCO’s regular gas distribution staff of 20 was down to six people, and they evacuated, too, sleeping in their vehicles about 45 minutes south of the city before returning the next day to continue closing some of the 100 valves of ATCO’s natural gas distribution system.

“From a gas company’s perspective, there’s not a whole lot that can be done, other than closing valves, so if the fire does come through, natural gas is not feeding it,” Germaine said. “When a fire is moving that quickly, that is all you can do. You try to respond to where the fire was moving and make safe your facilities ahead of the fire getting there.”

Shut It Down

One of their first priorities was to shut down a high-pressure line, owned by Suncor Energy, which ran through the town. While some valves were shut down remotely, ATCO worked with Suncor to helicopter a person into the city and manually shut the main valve down successfully. The experience led to a review of installing more remotely activated valves for transmission lines.

Back in Edmonton, senior executives Melanie Bayley and Nathan Carter were coordinating people and materials from the emergency command centre. Like the other teams, they worked for 40 straight days, from the start of the crisis to residents’ re-entry into the city June 13.

One early priority for ATCO’s electricity division was maintaining power to the water pumps, which they were largely able to accomplish with a bare bones crew who stayed to help as other employees and their families were evacuated, said Bayley, currently Chief Regulatory Officer for ATCO. Access to some of the power lines was difficult during the response because of their remote location and ongoing threats from active fires. Many distribution and transmission poles were damaged including a critical transmission river crossing, and substations in the area tripped off. But built-in redundancies paid off, enabling ATCO to continue supplying power to firefighters in the city.

City crews experienced in dealing with smaller urban fires were coming up to entire streets in flame, she said. “And critical for them to prevent the fire from entering the city deeper was that they had water pressure in the fire hydrants. The pumps for the city water system are electric driven but much of the electric system is above ground, so it’s susceptible, particularly distribution portions that are wood poles.”

Early in the response, Bayley was moved off the gas distribution-only response to coordinate all three business units, including Structures & Logistics, which involved workforce housing. As residents fled north of the city, ATCO opened the doors of its work camps to evacuees.  For weeks after this initial influx of evacuees, Creeburn Lake Lodge and later, Barge Landing Lodge played host to hundreds of evacuated residents and response personnel. At the peak of the evacuation, thousands of people stayed in the ATCO lodges, operated in a joint venture with the Fort McKay First Nation.

Having a highly-structured emergency response plan and reporting hierarchy in place avoided chaos during an incredibly challenging time, Bayley said. “You have to maintain that clear understanding of who is doing what and who is responsible for what decisions – so that you don’t end up with chaos, because that is about the worst thing, when people don’t know what they are doing.”

“At the peak of the evacuation, thousands of people stayed in the ATCO lodges, operated in a joint venture with the Fort McKay First Nation”

“At the peak of the evacuation, thousands of people stayed in the ATCO lodges, operated in a joint venture with the Fort McKay First Nation”

Out of control and unpredictable

During the first days of the fire, ATCO had six or seven people on the ground and several embedded in the city’s emergency operations center, which itself was evacuated and relocated several times.

“There was a lot going on – there were some pretty long, crazy days and you never knew what the fire was going to do next,” Nathan Carter, Vice President, Edmonton Region Operations – Gas Distribution, said. “Is the fire gone, when is it coming back, and what are we going to find when we get back into that community? How big a job will it be and how many people will we need, when will people be let back in and how are you going to take care of them?”

Other unique challenges included adverse ground conditions, such as the ash-filled air people were working in, and a rush of wildlife into and around the city. “We ended up having to equip all our folks with bear spray and epi-pens,” he said.

Approximately 2,400 homes were completely destroyed, almost 20 per cent of the city. When safe, an initial 40-person crew went to each remaining house and every natural gas station, digging up the line in a few places to ensure integrity, and on the basis of that information, formed a recovery team of 100-150 people to bring the system back on, to critical infrastructure like the hospital, and then to 20,000 homes.  “And that meant checking more than 1,300 purge points, it meant looking at the system, testing it and having a lot of people around to make sure it was done correctly,” Carter said.

The bulk of ATCO’s natural gas distribution system was underground, however, above-ground connectors to residences were completely destroyed. Water had also leaked into some pipes from the firefighting efforts. One of the most important losses was ATCO’s Number 1 Gate Station, an above-ground facility that takes high-pressure gas and regulates it to a lower pressure for distribution to homes. Located in a wooded area just outside of town, the station was completely destroyed.

“When safe, an initial 40-person crew went to each remaining house and every natural gas station.”

“When safe, an initial 40-person crew went to each remaining house and every natural gas station.”

It was rebuilt in a record three months to ensure the city would be supplied with gas that summer, and more importantly, in the winter. The areas without people weren’t repaired until late 2016, and other severely-damaged portions of the city and ATCO’s system could take several years to completely restore.

Takeaways

One of the big takeaways from the crisis was the importance of standardized emergency response plans, particularly the language, said Bayley. Each division at ATCO develops their own plan, which is important to ensure it accommodates unique operational needs but “I think we could have come together faster had our plans been more aligned,” she said. “They were very consistent, it wasn’t a huge problem, but even the nomenclature you use – you wouldn’t think that that would matter, but when you only have 30 seconds to talk to someone, it starts to matter,” Bayley said.

For Carter, the crisis emphasized the need to communicate both with crews and their customers. “You can’t communicate enough with people,” he said. For example, as well as town hall meetings every other day, ATCO put together an interactive online map residents could click and see whether they had gas or electricity service available when they went home.

Also important is overstaffing, he said. “You might think you only need 100 people, but you’re working in an emergency zone so you have to be flexible. It worked really well for us – we had a day where we had 3,000 relights requested in one day and we were able to get to all of them.”

Lessons learned

Some processes already have changed on how to deal with prolonged evacuation, particularly on the natural gas side. While ATCO, like all utilities, conducts regular leak inspections, customer call-ins like ‘I smell gas’ are also key. “If you have a prolonged evacuation where the public isn’t present, those calls stop. So, as you restore service, you require leak inspection on a continual basis as you bring gas back into the system.”

Know when to call on friends, added Germaine. While ATCO was able to get the systems back up to meet the city needs in time using ATCO employees, “there likely was an opportunity for us to rely on other CGA members, to lean on some of their employees a little bit,” he said. The physical and emotional toll of responding to the emergency continues to be felt, he said. Having resources set up, even on site, could limit the emotional impact and prepare people for the effects of having worked essentially in a disaster zone.

It is a point of pride for all involved that gas and power services were restored to the homes and businesses still standing in time for re-entry to the city, about 40 days after the fire swept through. “People worked 18-hour days for 30 days straight to accomplish that,” Bayley said. “We did not want to be the reason the people of Fort McMurray could not come back home.”

Costs:

Overall: $3.58 billion (insured damages); $9.5 billion (direct and indirect costs)

ATCO utility system gas/electric:

$13 million operating and maintenance

$35 million capital cost

$13 million in lost revenue

A year after the crisis, embers still were present, smoldering under the boreal forest floor, covered by moss and dirt, and weren’t extinguished until the spring.

Dina O’Meara is a former business writer with the Calgary Herald and is now a communications consultant.