​Four personal stories about the wildfire from Suncor, Syncrude, Shell and Canadian Natural Resources

Shell Albian Sands mine operator Kathleen Thomson helped evacuate almost 10,000 from north of Fort McMurray, then put her boots back on and went to work. Image: Joey Podlubny

The new book Saving Wood Buffalo tells the story of the largest wildfire and most expensive disaster in Alberta’s history through the stories of more than 60 of the people who were there.

This includes representatives from the oilsands companies whose projects north and south of Fort McMurray worked to protect the community as well as keep their businesses safe and running. Here are four of those stories.

An impossible feat: Fauzia Lalani, Suncor logistics director, moves out 10,000 people in 24 hours

Suncor Energy director of transportation, travel and strategy Fauzia Lalani was in a meeting in Calgary on May 3 when her smartphone rang. The person on the other end of the line said the wildfire that had caused the cancellation of her planned flight to Fort McMurray the day before had jumped the Athabasca River.

“I’m going to myself, ‘Fires don’t jump rivers. What does that mean, and how could it be possible?’ I called my boss and I said, ‘I think we need to stand up the RMT [response management team]. Let’s be ready just in case,’” says Lalani, who served as incident commander of Suncor’s RMT after it was activated to support the wildfire response.

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

“At first we really thought it was about being ready for potentially helping a few people who might get impacted, and then pretty soon we realized that it was much bigger than that.” The entire city was being evacuated, and just 25 kilometres to the north, Suncor was going to be the first major gathering point for people who could not move south. The company has access to several camp facilities, including its own lodges and those contracted from third parties, and they filled up quickly.

“We had over 10,000 rooms that we have direct access to. Normally, one room would have one person who happens to be working on our site, but we ended up opening the rooms to families. One room ended up having two people, four people or more. And then the lobbies, the kitchens, the cafeterias, they all were converted into impromptu areas for people to sleep, eat, whatever they required,” Lalani says.

“That’s also the number that we then ended up actually flying out from our Firebag aerodrome on our planes as well as [the] many charters that we were able to procure immediately.”

On the night of May 3, the intensity of the fire risk was still uncertain.

“That first night, we thought we’d be okay. The actual evacuation happened on May 4, once the firefighters made a determination that this was out of control and they wouldn’t be able to get it under control.”

At first, the airlift seemed like an almost impossible feat.

“I was asked to come back with a realistic proposal in terms of how long it would take to get 10,000-plus people out. Most planes only hold about 100 people, so we kind of started doing the math—it’s going to be about three to five days.... I don’t think we have that kind of time,” she says, crediting the creativity of “some amazing people” for what happened next.

“We started loading buses. We were able to work with Transport Canada to arrange what is called manifesting in the air, which was a one-time exemption. The buses just drove up right next to the airplanes and people got on, bags were loaded and the planes took off, literally in circles, one right after another.

“Remarkably, we were able to evacuate all those people in around 24 hours. If you were to ask me today to do the math on that, I’m not sure I could quite do it, but somehow we managed to do it.”

At the same time, Suncor shut down its plant, which is no small undertaking.

“It is one thing to say we are going to shut down the plant, it’s another to actually do it,” Lalani says. “There is a process that you have to go through to safely do that and takes a few hours; it’s not like a breaker that you can just turn off. That planning started and that continued in parallel with the evacuation.”

As Suncor was working on the airlift evacuation, Lalani says a colleague in the RMT raised an important point about keeping full families together.

“She said, ‘You know, when Katrina happened, one of the things that really hurt people was that they had to abandon their pets. You need to think about the pets because for those of us who have pets or are pet lovers, they are no different than our children.’ And so we had to quickly think through how we were going to do that, and with partnerships both internally and externally were able to procure the right contraptions, if you will, for some of them,” she says.

This included dogs, cats, pot-bellied pigs, ferrets, fish, rabbits and more.

“You name it, we had it, and we accommodated all of them. I think for a family that is going through that kind of trauma, particularly the children for whom the pets are their lifeline, I think that is probably one of the best things that we did, and it is so much in line with Suncor values about respect and dignity.”

Once the lodges had been emptied of community evacuees, rooms became filled again with firefighters and first responders.

As the work continued on the ground to fight the fire, Suncor was preparing for remobilization to restart not only the plant, but also Fort McMurray itself, she says.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing our part to get the community to get back to the new normal, if you like,” she says, noting that the Fort McMurray community is a huge part of the Suncor operation.

“Certainly, we have Suncor employees who work there, but we wouldn’t be able to operate the plant without all the other individuals who make Fort McMurray the amazing city that it is.”

The Suncor RMT continued operations for eight weeks as the challenge shifted from evacuation to firefighting to remobilization. For Lalani, it was difficult to stay away from the situation’s ground zero.

“It was very difficult to stay in Calgary, because you want to be there. You think that you can make a bigger difference there and then remind yourself there is a role back here, because if you don’t do all of this stuff, the other stuff is not going to happen.”

Productivity protector: Roger Hebblethwaite outlines how to shut down and restart an over-300,000-barrel-per-day oilsands mine in the middle of a disaster

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

Roger Hebblethwaite bleeds orange. The site shift manager has proudly been with Syncrude for 36 years and is now moving into retirement, but he’s confident the plant is in good hands—in part because of what he experienced during and after the Fort McMurray wildfires this spring.

Hebblethwaite—who, like most people who work on site at Syncrude, lives in Fort McMurray—was at a seminar in Chicago on May 3 when a colleague started receiving reports about the city’s evacuation via social media.

“There’s probably no more helpless feeling than being that many miles away and knowing that your community and your organization is having that kind of challenge and you can’t do anything about it,” he says.

“We made contact with our families to make sure they were okay and worked with them to make sure that they got out safely and our belongings wherever possible were taken care of, then I made contact with my peers here at Syncrude to find out how it was going and what they were doing.” What they were doing was rushing to open up a camp that had been closed for a year to house the waves of families that were arriving at Syncrude’s door, while making arrangements to airlift them out.

“Within hours we activated a camp, and we had two operations managers that turned into camp managers. Suddenly, they were checking in people and it was just amazing that they were able to house 1,500 people in our camp here on site,” Hebblethwaite says.

“They went above and beyond. They did everything from dog food to diapers to make sure that people were being taken care of while they worked with the rest of the operators in the region to make sure we were helping to transport folks out.

“People just stepped up. I put it like this: there were no roles; people just did whatever was necessary. We had folks that suddenly became transportation managers. They were coordinating flights and how to get people to airports or airstrips and get them on planes, and that took a huge amount of coordination and communication.”

Within 48 hours, Syncrude evacuated all of its non-essential employees and their families out of the region.

Hebblethwaite himself was making his way back to Syncrude. On Friday, May 6, he was getting ready to board a plane to the site when plans changed.

“Originally, when I first got called, that was before we made the decision to shut down. I was actually going to fly in and relieve one of the operations managers. When I didn’t get the phone call and I phoned in to find out why I wasn’t going to be on the plane, that’s when they informed me that the decision was made to shut down,” he says.

“What’s unique about this is it’s the first time since we started up our operations in 1978 that we had a complete shutdown of our plant.”

It was not a decision made lightly, Hebblethwaite says.

“It took a lot of coordination within the operation to make sure that we clearly communicated in order to shut down the entire operation and to keep the focus on the safety of our personnel. You have to remember [that] by then, we had a number of people who had been here for a number of days and those folks also had been evacuated, so every person is an evacuee. We had to make sure that we focused on how to safely shut down all the units. They all have to be shut down in a certain order; you can’t just shut them all down.”

As challenging as the shutdown was, the restart was even tougher. Hebblethwaite was part of a team mobilized at Syncrude’s Edmonton offices to coordinate a process that had not been executed for almost 40 years.

“If you think about the energy that went into starting up Syncrude the first time, it would have taken months and years to put a plan together and then it would have been executed over the course of months. We put a plan together over the course of a couple of weeks and then we embarked on our start-up.”

On May 10, Syncrude landed three people on site who, equipped with breathing packs, inspected all the units to prepare for the restart.

“I’ve spoken to them and they said it was a pretty amazing feeling when the three of them were the only people on the Mildred Lake site,” Hebblethwaite says.

Syncrude began repopulating its site with staff, but on May 15 it had to re-evacuate due to the fire risk. The workers were soon able to return, and the restart began in earnest.

“We started up 40 operating plants one-time, which means we did it right the first time, 40 times,” he says.

“These kinds of things don’t just happen. I couldn’t be more proud of the people who work here at every level of the organization. People came together and we restarted this place for the first time since 1978. There are people who have experiences that they will never forget, and not just the evacuation…in the industry, to restart a plant like this from cold makes you proud to be involved.”

Hebblethwaite says Syncrude achieved a record month of production in August, just three months after the milestone shutdown.

Looking to help: Shell's Kathleen Thomson helped evacuate almost 10,000 from north of city

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

Shell Albian Sands process operator Kathleen Thomson was at home in Fort McMurray on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 3, trying to get some sleep after seven nights of working, when the phone rang. Her husband was on the other end of the line.

“He said, ‘Kathleen, don’t panic, but I’m on the golf course and I can see flames, so you might want to get up and start putting some things together,’” she says.

The couple and their 20-year-old daughter packed up two vehicles, grabbed their four dogs and joined the evacuation that was under way—but they had to choose whether to head south to Edmonton or north to the mines.

“He definitely wanted to go south because he wanted to keep us safe, but I just kept thinking, ‘I have to get to Albian.’ If everybody’s heading up there, my skills will definitely come in handy. I won, obviously, and we headed north. The whole time, both of us kind of had that thought that we’re running upstairs in a horror movie, we are going in the wrong direction, but I just couldn’t imagine turning around,” Thomson says.

The drive north to Albian, which usually takes about one hour, took five.

“When we got to the camp and the doors opened, it was nothing short of mayhem—if you can imagine organized mayhem. There were people and kids and there were babies and there were cats and, oh my goodness, there were dogs. Everywhere there were dogs. Even ourselves, we had my husband, my daughter, our four dogs, my brother, his wife, their four children under six years old and my mother—so we were contributing to the mayhem,” Thomson says.

“At first it was a little bit unnerving because Shell has a strong, safe, methodical, rules sort of environment, but then I kind of realized that we had switched from being a business to being a community safe haven.”

The Albian Village camp was out of rooms when Thomson’s family arrived, but a maintenance crew she works with gave up their rooms and slept on coveralls in their shop for the next couple of nights so that her family could have beds.

“That was our first emotional moment,” she says.

After settling in, at about midnight Thomson and her daughter were wide awake and looking for some way to help—they started by relieving Albian staff running a refreshment table set up in the camp lobby. At about 4 a.m., a senior manager emerged looking for people to help with evacuation flights, a task Thomson eagerly accepted.

She took scope of what was happening and started managing the flight list while some logistics people in the room from Calgary set things up. When the organizers left on flights first thing in the morning, Thomson ended up running the operation.

Over the next four days, Shell flew out 9,800 people on about 80 flights.

“We not only got them out, we fed them, we gave them clothes, we had dog kennels, we gave them baby seats. It was this massive logistical undertaking and we accomplished it with the cooperation of so many people who weren’t normally in those roles,” Thomson says.

“I think at the time I didn’t even recognize it as running a team; I was just sort of part of this mighty bunch of people from every part of the business, just all working together in this incredibly small, very hot office that normally had four people and, generally, we had 10, 12, 15 in it at all times.

“Literally, lives were on the line at this point. The fire was still threatening, it was still moving quite quickly north, so we just were totally focused on the goal of getting people out and getting people out safely without a whole lot of concern for procedure and pomp and circumstance.”

On the Friday, as another team was starting to take over, Thomson and others went out on buses to help people who were in outlying camp facilities.

“A lot of them had been, for lack of a better term, abandoned. They had no way to leave, they had no vehicles, they had flown up there but they weren’t able to get on flights for whatever reason, so we went on Diversified buses and picked people up, on-boarded them and brought them into our airport.

But it was getting harder for Thomson to be in the midst of the wildfire.

“I have asthma, and obviously in a situation like that it was getting a little out of control. When we woke up Saturday morning there was a thick layer of brown, acrid smoke and so my husband didn’t give me an option at that point—he said, ‘Pack your stuff, we’re leaving,’” she says.

The family drove south to Edmonton, where Thomson spent three and a half days resting. But once again, she had to get up to Albian.

“Literally, I shovel dirt and operate the plant; that’s what I do in my normal role. I got in touch with two of my crew members who are fly-in fly-out—they don’t live in Fort McMurray—but I heard that they were the only ones there, and I thought, ‘I can’t let them operate by themselves,’ so I flew back up on Wednesday.”

For Thomson, what stands out about the experience the most is the true camaraderie that surfaced.

“I think it’s easy to get caught up in a global business of just feeling like you are a cog in the wheel, and I believe that’s normal across the board no matter if you’re working at Shell or Syncrude or Canada Post or wherever,” she says.

“We saw that people care about each other and I’m sure it was always there, it just wasn’t the apparent thing that you think about.”

An island of calm: Canadian Natural’s Chad Beaton and team help others evacuate while keeping wary eye on the fire

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

Chad Beaton was the senior manager on call at Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s Horizon Oil Sands mine when the news came in that Fort McMurray was being evacuated.

Located 75 kilometres north of the community, Horizon was not in immediate danger, but it wasn’t long before the municipality was calling for firefighting support and evacuees were arriving at the door.

Unlike the region’s four other mining projects, Horizon was able to keep operating and to continue construction on a major expansion throughout the fire risk. But while workers kept the trucks and shovels running, they also helped protect the safety of thousands of evacuees, nearby First Nations communities and area work camps.

First on Beaton’s mind were Horizon employees.

“One of the first things we did was send out an email to all of our staff saying if you live in Fort McMurray and you’ve been evacuated, come north. Come to our site. We’ll do what we can with the resources we have, we’ll take care of you, just come here.”

The vast majority of Horizon workers do not live in Fort McMurray and are flown in and out of the site using the company’s aerodrome—a facility that thousands of Wood Buffalo residents passed through as they escaped the blaze.

“In the period between Tuesday to Wednesday [May 3–4], I think we received somewhere around 3,500 people on our site and we flew out I believe 2,700 in that 16-hour period, between Calgary and Edmonton,” Beaton says.

“The people that were coming, they were coming with everything. Babies, families, friends, animals. We did whatever we could to look after all of the people who were coming to our site.”

Beaton’s team also did its best to maintain calm among the people working at the site, which he admits wasn’t easy.

“Some of these guys, they had no idea where they were in relation to this fire because we fly them in. They just knew that they were near Fort McMurray and there is a fire,” he says.

“Our biggest issue was just to communicate clearly and effectively so that they understood that we were looking out for them, we’re going to take care of them and we’re going to ensure their safety, and it was a very difficult task to do that.”

Beaton was receiving the same worried calls from home as his employees.

“The location of Horizon and the prevailing winds and all those things kind of aligned us to be on an island of our own, very secure and safe, but you can imagine if your family was calling and saying you’ve got to get out of there...I was getting it from my mom, my sisters, my wife, my kids. It’s like, no, I mean we’re playing baseball tonight.”

Canadian Natural gave employees the option to be flown out if they felt unsafe, Beaton says, and about 50 people took the company up on it.

“I could see where they were coming from and I don’t blame those guys and ladies for leaving. If you don’t know where you are, it could be pretty scary.”

On the Friday after the fire started there was a point where it did get scary at Horizon for a few hours, Beaton says, as the wind changed and the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see. At that point the company picked up elders from Fort McKay and evacuated them using the aerodrome when they got the window to fly.

As the closest project to Fort McKay, the company was already working with the community to make sure residents had food, water, shelter and medication. In addition to its own resources, Canadian Natural distributed supplies to Fort McKay that had been sent by the federal government via Hercules aircraft to Horizon.

The whole experience was surreal and had many ups and downs, Beaton says, but included some positives in the end.

“Devastating as the fire was, there were some really good learnings and some really good work established by everybody working together,” he says, referencing work with other industry players as well as government and communities.

“You don’t really train for this, you train for more of a process upset, but it’s an emergency and the basis is the same so all that hard work and all that training that everybody used to complain about, it worked. And that’s how it happens.”

For more information on Saving Wood Buffalo, click here.

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