Monday, June 13, 2016

Fort McMurray–Wildfire

I had been putting off replacing the deck at home for some time now, but I had finally run out of excuses and started to tear the old deck apart and rip off the railings.  About the time I was headed off for a load of lumber and supplies, my work phone rang with a request.
In the early weeks of the big forest fires up at Fort McMurray in north-eastern Alberta, fire behaviour was such that few human actions were going to have much effect in slowing the blaze. Eventually, the weather cooperated somewhat and now there was now a need for personnel and equipment – and they wanted me!  With great regret (ya right), I put the deck project on hold again, cut short my days off and headed up to Ft Mac.
As per my previous post, it was snowing heavily when I paid a visit to my fifth wheel at my regular fire camp, and crews there were busy shoveling snow, not fighting fires!

I was even using 4 wheel drive for the first hour of the drive to lessen the chances of hitting the ditch due to the slush covering the road.  After that, it rained continuously most of the way up there – conveniently stopping where it was needed most – on the big fire.  The city of Ft McMurray was still under evacuation, so only firefighters, police, utility workers and the like were present when I arrived and there were no stores or gas stations of any kind open.  Police checkpoints were everywhere, to prevent unauthorized people from entering neighbourhoods.  We were all issued wrist bands and all of our vehicles were specially marked to allow access.  Fire camp was a huge accumulation of temporary trailers, power plants, water tanks, located right beside Hwy 63 on the south edge of town.
I scored a decent private room with running water; not surprising as one of my jobs was to assign rooms!  Even so, it did take a few days before the water did run and was hot!

Meanwhile, poor Ms Hailey was left back at home with only occasional friends, family and neighbours to look in on her every day or so  Sad smile.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take to the air one day to have a look around the city.  The great majority of the structures appeared to be just fine.  But it was eerie flying over a neighbourhood, and seeing nothing moving at all!  And all the garbage cans and recycle bins sitting out by the curb – awaiting pickup that never came.
Some areas were completely devastated, unfortunately …
And some neighbourhoods looked unscathed, but the treeline had been pushed back to create dozer guards to protect the houses.

Views of our fire camp from the air.  Fairly quiet during the day; at night parking was at a premium.  We had our own fuel tanks as there was no fuel available commercially.
Off in the distance (photo below, right) there was a plume of smoke visible.vlcsnap-2016-05-24-12h53m45s068
With the hot dry winds and no precipitation, it was soon very evident, right from camp!
Even thought the main fire had passed through this area about three weeks previously, there were many smokes still puffing up in the ravine within 100 yds of the fire camp.
Even in the burned bush, new green plants were already sprouting and turning it green again.
I saw firefighters from most Canadian provinces and territories, as well as some from the US, and of course those famous ones from South Africa.  Flags from many jurisdictions were flying over camp.
Out at the airport (still closed to commercial use because of the heavy fire – related traffic) were a myriad of water bombers, and helicopters of all sizes and shapes.
And literally tons of fire equipment either bound for the fire line, or returned for repair and re-issue.
Whether in town at the provincial building, the warehouse at the airport, or at any of many fire camps and staging areas, I would run into familiar faces from my home Rocky area who were up the the area assisting with operations!
While I was there, the phased re-entry of Fort McMurray residents began; so slowly a few businesses began to open, and there was once again some traffic on the road and in the downtown area.  It was an amazing sight.  At many intersections, RCMP officers stood outside their patrol vehicles waving at the returning residents.  Fire department personnel and paramedics stood on the overpass acknowledging the honking returnees with waves and flags.

Many reception and information centers in town were staffed with hundreds of volunteers, supplying information, insurance advice, basic necessities, cleaning materials, pre-paid debit cards, and anything needed by those returning.
Billboards all along the way into the city welcomed people back!

This original welcome sign survived the fire that burned the bush behind it and the grass underneath it, but now the grass was green, and a local radio station personality famously changed the sign to welcome residents home!
imageImage result for fort mcmurray signs
The fire was first reported on May 1.  Today June 13th, the fire has finally been reclassified from ‘Out of Control’ to ‘Being Held’, as per this official notice from Alberta Wildfire.
Thanks to the hard work of firefighters the Fort McMurray wildfire has had a status change. The wildfire is now classified as Being Held.
Being Held means that given current weather conditions and resources the wildfire is not anticipated to grow past expected boundaries.
Alberta Wildfire is incredibly grateful for the hard work of our firefighters, support staff and partners who have stood by our side over the last month and a half.
Firefighters have a long road ahead and will continue to work hard towards bringing this wildfire under control.
We encourage you to stay up to date on the wildfire situation in Alberta by downloading the Alberta Wildfire App here:
My name finally showed up on the list!
Last Day
After two weeks assisting in Fort McMurray, my time was up and I headed south to home and back to Hailey, who I think was glad to see me?  After a few days off, they offered me another chance to go north (!), but I said – Maybe Later!  I’ve got a deck to build and a cat to look after.   Winking smile