News / The Fort McMurray Wildfire of 2016: Beyond the numbers
29 Jan
The Fort McMurray Wildfire of 2016: Beyond the numbers By Kabir Shaal

This is an account of the work done in Fort McMurray by some of the members of the Restoration Contractors Organization of Canada – Organisation des entrepreneurs de restauration du Canada

$4,800,000,000 in damages; 1,500,000 acres of land scorched between May 1 and July 1; 88,000 people displaced; 2,800 firefighters mobilized; 2,400 structures destroyed. The biggest wildfire catastrophe in Canadian history is defined by statistics, described by superlatives, and documented in video clips web-wide.

However, long after the numbers are forgotten, the emotions associated with this event will persist. The Beast won’t die – it will live on in the memories of a generation because the narrative goes beyond the facts. The real story lies with the people of Timberlea, Waterways, Abasand, and Beacon Hill and with the men and women from across the country who answered the call in May 2016. Canadians watched the first responders move in and risk their lives day after day. Shocking images and compelling stories streamed across television screens and social media channels. #ymm came to represent fear, courage, forbearance, and ultimately hope and victory.

While the first responders dealt with danger and hardship, small towns all the way up and down Highway 63 and eventually to Calgary opened their hearts and homes to the displaced people. Generosity and compassion were offered on an almost unbelievable scale.

Whilst much of the country watched events unfold, others quietly prepared for next steps. Dozens of restoration firms connected with their insurance company partners and started planning. The scale of the disaster was numbing. At one time, it looked like much of Fort McMurray would burn down. In the end, ‘only’ a couple of thousand buildings were lost – but still six times the number of structures that were destroyed in the Slave Lake wildfire of May 2011. Then there was the potential smoke damage. And pollution. And fire retardant. It was going to be a big cleanup followed by an even bigger rebuild.

Sometime in mid-May, restoration firms across the country began to ask their teams for volunteers to take up the initial emergency work. It was a big ask: no departure date, nowhere to stay, no return date, and uncertain living conditions. The response was overwhelming. Summer vacation plans were shelved and family life was put on hold as volunteers stepped up. This was going to be a national effort. However, there was considerable doubt about the financial viability of sending in teams from other provinces. Contractors turned to insurers to achieve some cost certainty and, in most cases, were able to collaborate on wages, mobilization, and equipment rates.

“It was very gratifying to witness firsthand the response from the insurance and restoration communities. We should all be very proud.” – Will Cook, President Belfor Restoration

This positive step gave contractors the confidence to move ahead with preparations. There was a scramble to secure accommodation in camps and hotels in and around Fort McMurray. Availability quickly ran out.

The next stage was waiting. It took two weeks for the fire to move sufficiently out of the area before work crews could go in. Contractors immediately started to pour in – by road only since the airport was still closed. A few contractors had teams set up in Fort McMurray in early June. An emergency mitigation team from Strone Restoration was given a tight deadline to clean Fort McMurray International Airport so it could reopen on June 10, 2016. They got the job done with 3 hours to spare.

At the same time, huge mobilization efforts were taking place in ServiceMaster’s Edmonton office – one of fourteen ServiceMaster Restore locations to respond.  Coordinated through their corporate office, they sent in teams from Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario.  The efforts of nearly 2,000 ServiceMaster workers contributed to the restoration of Fort McMurray. Locations worked on included the Northern Lights Medical Center, Keyano College, the mall, multiple schools and municipal buildings, and hundreds of residential properties. It was the largest operation they had ever worked on as a team. The hospital job was halted for three days when the fire breached nearby firebreaks but, determined to get the job done to allow residents to return home, ServiceMaster Restore finished on schedule.

DKI brought in 482 men and women from ten locations in Alberta and Manitoba. Although no one saw the event as just another job, for at least one restoration team the Fort McMurray fire was a personal test. Tamara and Rob Roy live in Fort McMurray and own Proserve DKI. They were at a DKI meeting in Toronto when their mobile phone sounded an alarm. It was connected to their home fire alarm. Surrounded by their DKI colleagues, they realised they had lost their home and all their personal belongings.

Fortunately, their work place was undamaged – although badly affected by smoke. They returned to Fort McMurray, cleaned up their office with help from other DKI members and went straight out on claim assignments.

DKI’s Director of Western Canada, Geoff Stewart, remembers June 1 – the day the city was declared open to road access. He was amongst the first to drive in. He saw overpasses manned by flag-waving first responders and, overcome by emotion, he pulled over to text a quick message to his DKI team.


Entry into Fort McMurray June 1st, 2016: “I just wanted to share this quickly with you.  I drove into the city and can say it was one of the most emotional moments I have had in my career. It really caught me off guard this morning. The road coming into the city is filled with fire fighters and RCMP waving to the citizens as you enter.  Hundreds of first responders on bridges and side roads holding ‘welcome home’ signs. Needless to say, I’ll be wearing sunglasses for a bit and can’t imagine how the people who live here are feeling. I’m not an emotional man, but this really caught me today. ” – Geoff S

If one word could sum up the post-fire feeling for Geoff, it would be ‘solidarity’. Everyone helped; everyone felt the same way. It was that sort of event – definitely not just another job.

First General Services’ Vice President of Operations, Randy Millar, recalls the uncertainty of timeframes and the tough financial decisions that had to be made. Balancing business sense with the desire to help wasn’t easy. Eventually, he assembled 100 FGS employees from sixteen offices from as far away as St. John’s Newfoundland and a further 300 temporary workers from Alberta and set up operations in Fort McMurray. Ramping up to ensure that service demands were met without running up costs was a difficult juggling act and scheduling work hours was a significant challenge in the early days. In the end, everything worked out but, like most restoration firms, FGS had employees in Fort McMurray for up to three months. Throughout this period, accommodation, supplies, and employee stress were ongoing challenges.

One of the biggest challenges for Randy and his team was managing policyholder and adjuster expectations. Residents started to pour back in droves once the city was opened in early June and with ALE limits running out in some cases, the team had to work hard to get an anxious populace back into their houses without delay. Job quality was paramount because every resident was concerned about what they would find and about the potential environmental danger to their children.

There are still many challenges ahead – rebuild permits won’t be issued until demolition work is completed and winter is almost here. The journey to full recovery is far from complete.

On Side Restoration quickly assembled about 200 employees and temporary workers from 12 branches and got started on 300 jobs assigned to them by insurers. On Side’s Vice President, Doug Irwin, faced the same deployment challenge as many other contractors. Taking care of employees is the #1 priority of every business and there was no end to the challenges faced in Fort McMurray, especially in the early days when even potable water was scarce. However, the two weeks between the start of the fire and actually getting people to Fort McMurray turned out to be a blessing because it gave Doug time to get his plans in place. Eventually, he had people in the field for up to nine weeks. He was gratified to find that the Department of Occupational Health and Safety was very satisfied with the arrangements that he and other restoration contractors made.

For Belfor’s President, Will Cook, the sheer logistics of the entire event were unlike anything he and his team had ever dealt with before. He, too, had concerns about employee welfare. However, they found the camp operators in the area to be very professional and that was immensely helpful. Nevertheless, the repetitive nature of the work combined with high temperatures and restrictive camp life made motivating a large team challenging. The protracted scale of work made mental health issues and physical exhaustion a daily issue. Will acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution by “the health and safety officers in Fort McMurray who worked with our group and the medical professionals who provided a high level of care for our staff under extreme circumstances.” Belfor’s work in Fort McMurray is now largely done and they have left Fort McMurray with a sense of accomplishment and pride knowing they have made a difference in helping the city recover from a devastating event.

Pride has been a recurring theme amongst all the contractors that went out. For most people, the weeks spent in Fort McMurray were repaid by a stronger sense of personal achievement and satisfaction. A well-earned reward but a mentally and physically draining one, nonetheless.

Paul Davis Restoration had over 300 people from eight different locations involved in Fort McMurray, including their four offices based in Alberta, along with three from outside the province and their international large loss solution team, Paul Davis National.

Bill Dietz, Regional Vice President for Canada, shared many of the concerns of the property restoration industry had about assisting in the stabilization and clean-up of Fort McMurray, in particular regarding housing for his team, cash flow and availability of man-power. Once arrangements were reached to ensure a fair pricing model for contractors, homeowners, and insurance companies, he knew Paul Davis would be able to assist in a significant way.

“We are honoured to be part of the physical recovery of the community of Fort McMurray after the fires and we are excited to help in the emotional recovery through Stars of HOPE as well,” – Bill Dietz, Regional Vice President, Paul Davis Restoration

Like many other restorers that worked in Fort McMurray, Bill was struck by the genuine support and appreciation his people received in the city. He and the Paul Davis team were so inspired by the pride and resolve displayed by the Wood Buffalo community that they felt compelled to give back. They collaborated with the Stars of Hope program to place stars with inspirational messages around the city and participated in the 2016 Canada Day parade and celebrations in Fort McMurray.

Winmar reached out to seven locations in Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia and mustered 200 employees. They worked with their insurance partners to service over 900 claims and won the gratitude of many as their team worked through weeks of hard work in Fort McMurray.

Alberta Fire & Flood’s David Smith was asked by an insurer to get an initial team into the city on May 25 to prepare an accomodation camp for future use. It was a difficult few days as the team worked through smoke, limited supplies, and knowing that the fire wasn’t under control at the time. The heat and protective masks and clothing added to the stress and discomfort but they finished the job on schedule. Eventually, they got 150 people into the city and handled another 300 claims. Aside from the expected hazards of smoke, mould, and pathogens, they encountered two more for which there are no standard operating procedures: spiders and bears. However, the team pulled through and has been called back numerous times for additional work in the area.

FirstOnSite Restoration arrived in Fort McMurray very early in the event. By May 8 they were working with Alberta Emergency Management on restoring air quality in critical personnel hubs, including first responder accommodations, operations centres and offices. During the early weeks of the wildfire, FirstOnSite’s teams sourced materials and equipment from areas as far as Mississauga, Ontario, to help with efforts in Fort McMurray. From groceries and day-to-day supplies to specialized equipment, replenishing resources for teams operating during the first response was an ongoing challenge.

“Our first priority is to manage air quality in individual buildings so that first responders can have a clean environment to operate in.” – Jim Mandeville, Senior Project Manager, Large Loss North America, FOS Restoration

By the time Premier Rachel Notley announced the June 1 phased re-entry of Fort McMurray’s residents, FirstOnSite had gathered a team of 140 from twenty branches across most of Canada and an additional 250 from their Large Loss division as well as temporary workers. They handled about 1,000 claims and encountered many policyholders with touching stories. For example, the couple whose baby was born at 7:30pm on May 2 that had to evacuate Fort McMurray the very next day with their 19-hour old infant. Then there was the harrowing story of a father who sustained severe blisters on his back as he rushed to load his children in the car with the fire raging just meters away.

Story after story of people in danger, under severe stress, barely escaping in time. However, no matter what their personal circumstances and challenges, these people always showed appreciation for the many professionals that came out to help them. In fact, there was a universal obervation made by every restoration professional: every homeowner took the time to talk about their journey out of and back into Fort McMurray. They understood that the restoration teams had left their homes and families behind. These exchanges were often deeply emotional and served as a constant reminder that in moments of great personal challenge, the best of us stand together.

There’s a long way to go before the damage done by the Fort McMurray Wildfire is completely fixed and costs are tabulated. However, there’s little doubt that the real measure of the event is the strength of resolve, compassion, and courage of the people of Fort McMurray and the men and women from across the country that reached out to help them in their time of need.

The Restoration Contractors Organization of Canada represents Canada’s full-service property damage restoration industry

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