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The Evacuation

When I came to work on May 3rd, it was just another Tuesday. I had a couple of meetings booked, and my to-do list ready to be done. Sure, I had heard about some forest fires in the northern part of the province, but that's not unusual. There is always some sort of fire somewhere in the province during the summer. Even though it was only the beginning of May, we'd been experiencing summer-like weather in an extended spring, so it made sense the fire season started early. But, by the end of the day, I was more than a little worried. Little did I know how huge this fire would end up being, ultimately and appropriately named ''The Beast'', affecting tens of thousands of my fellow Albertans.

As we watched the evacuation of an entire city, I likened the scenario to the drama we witnessed in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Yet, in Fort McMurray, some 90,000 people cleared out within a matter of hours, sadly there was one casualty, but zero violence. No doubt demographics played a large part in the difference between the two disasters. Unlike he residents of the low-income and low-lying parishes of New Orleans, the majority of Fort McMurray residents live well above the poverty line and have vehicles as well as the cash to gas up those vehicles to get the hell out of Dodge. Even so, the stress levels of people fleeing a massive forest fire would have been the same or worse than those fleeing a hurricane. The people of Fort Mac watched flames approach their homes, drove through smoke and raging fire, saw buildings explode and burn to the ground, waited for hours in gas station line ups only to be told of rations, crawled along the one highway out of town (incidentally hundreds of miles from the nearest major center) at 10 km per hour, faced the possibility running out of gas in the middle of the night with or without small children, and ultimately had no idea if they would have a home or even a job to return to. How exactly did these people get out unscathed when every other natural disaster on earth results in death and injury?

An article by Kevin Libin (Financial Post, May 5) communicated what I was already thinking and said, "The oil industry's obsessive safety culture, drilled into Fort Mac's workers, no doubt made a crucial difference in residents making it out in such a timely and healthy condition." In a city that is populated with oil workers, safety is indeed a way of life. Being in the oil and gas industry for ten years, I know firsthand that all employers - upstream, midstream, downstream, and service companies - have a corporate goal of a zero TRIR (Total Recordable Incident Rate). These businesses that employ anywhere from ten to 100,000 people talk the talk and do walk the walk. They invest millions of hours and dollars into safety training, programs, and equipment.

In the field and in the ivory towers of downtown Calgary, daily safety moments and monthly safety meetings encourage employees to proactively think of and identify possible hazards and discuss past incidents. Personally signed, "Working safely is important to me because of ... ," notes are displayed on walls, desks, and even coveralls. H2S and First Aid training is mandatory for most positions and has to be renewed on a regular basis. The reporting of 'Near Misses' are encouraged not as a tattle-tale mechanism but as a way to prevent incidents. Requisite company and site-specific HSE orientations are not only comprehensive but exhaustive. Emergency Response Plans (ERPs) are consistently reviewed. All of these efforts and exercises in indoctrination have resulted in a real, industry­wide culture of safety. So, am I really surprised Fort McMurray evacuated in such a safe manner?

This shining example of working and living safely made me proud to be part of the oilpatch. What we saw after the initial evacuation made me even prouder to be an Albertan. Dollars starting pouring into the Red Cross. People all over Alberta were organizing donation drives for household items and pet supplies. Emergency workers were rescuing pets who were left behind in the frantic evacuation. Restaurants all over the province offered free meals to anyone with a Fort Mac ID. Homes with spare rooms were opened in every village, town, and city, including the 'work camps'.

On May 3rd, anyone who couldn't go south of Fort McMurray was forced north. And, if you know your Alberta geography, you know that north of the city there are no accommodations other than 'work camps'. But, there are dozens of camps, which are able to house thousands of people. (NB: The 21st century "work camp" is not unlike a regular hotel, and the preferred term is "Lodge"). As a result of this influx, the camps and their associated resources were strained to say the least. Checking in evacuees was like a big convention came to town except the big convention was spur of the moment! Camp staff, including desk clerks, cooks, and janitors, worked literally around the clock to ensure their unexpected and exhausted guests were safe and comfortable. Food supplies, which are planned on a weekly basis, now had to feed hundreds more than originally planned. The strict, "No pets and children," policies were overlooked as intact families finally arrived at a safe place. And, when supplies like potable water, diesel, and/or propane ran out, competitors didn't even hesitate to give each other assistance. I was, and still am, filled with immense pride to see my fellow employees work with limited resources and rest simply for the good of the community.

Faced with this magnitude of emergency, other industries and populations may have erupted into chaos. Other businesses and citizens may have taken advantage of the situation to gouge the evacuees. But, in the Alberta oil patch, we truly came together as a community to safely overcome the danger and take care of the present needs, and we will be there as a community to rebuild for the future.

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