Dispatches from the Fort McMurray wildfires
The AER is accustomed to responding to emergencies such as well blowouts and pipeline spills. But sometimes we’re called upon to intervene during natural disasters, as was the case with the recent wildfires in Fort McMurray. Below are just two of many stories of how the AER has supported Alberta’s efforts to respond to the blaze that recently ravaged the area.
Standing under a sunny, clear sky in his grey AER coveralls, Colin Woods appears tired but proud.
The Bonnyville manager is with 200 first responders at the Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC) in Fort McMurray as they wait for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to arrive as part of an official tour.
A collective fatigue and camaraderie hangs heavy in the air. People don’t just say “hi”—they stop, shake hands, hold your arm a little longer than usual, and ask “how are you doing?”
Woods chats with some of his colleagues as they wait in the crowd, enjoying the break but anxious to hand off his duties to Bonnyville Field Centre inspector Tim Chrest before heading home after six tough days.
“I left on Mother’s Day,” he says. “Luckily, we got up early in the morning and did all the gifts because my wife was off to the evacuation centre in Bonnyville to help with that. I got the call around 10:30 in the morning and headed up.”
After arriving to take his place in the REOC—the frontline operations centre that coordinates planning and response activities—and spending the first night in his truck, Woods’s days quickly settled into a busy rhythm.
“You get in first thing in the morning and just chase fires,” he says, quickly realizing the irony of this description given the situation. “You’re passing on REOC updates and disseminating information; someone has questions, industry needs information; someone wants a flyover, or you’re dealing with a downed powerline on a pipeline.”
When there’s an oil and gas incident in the field, AER staff usually take the lead. But as part of a provincial effort, the role is very different.
“I’m at the table with Alberta Emergency Management and the RCMP; they are really great and welcome you right in.”
He continues, “We drove through the community. Seeing the wrecked houses is shocking because the metal things like fridges are still standing. The one thing that hits you harder is when you see the playgrounds with chains hanging with no benches where the swings should be and the trampoline frame with no trampoline and you’re like ‘aw the kids, right?’ Their homes, their backyards.”
Prime Minister Trudeau finally arrives to address the large crowd of first responders. He specifically speaks to the unified command at the REOC.
“The number of different groups and agencies here working together is an unbelievable precedent that speaks to more than just your individual strengths but to our strengths as a community and indeed as a country,” says the prime minister.
The crowd gathers for a group photo along with selfies with Prime Minister Trudeau. As the responders break up and go back to their work, Woods runs into Premier Notley, who stops for a photo. “You guys are doing an amazing job,” says the Premier. “Thank you so much.”
Woods walks through the REOC after handing off his duties to Tim, stopping to say goodbye to his colleagues. He climbs into his AER truck and does his safety check before travelling home for a well-deserved break.
“We drove through the community. Seeing the wrecked houses is shocking because the metal things like fridges are still standing. The one thing that hits you harder is when you see the playgrounds with chains hanging with no benches where the swings should be and the trampoline frame with no trampoline and you’re like ‘aw the kids, right?’ Their homes, their backyards.”