Case Study: Crisis and Trust

Difficult situations sometimes arise to no fault of any one person or any person at all. The 2016 Horse River/Fort McMurray wildfire is one such tragic incident that mobilized communities, governmental agencies and corporate stakeholders around a common cause.

An unprecedented wildfire impacted the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray in May 2016 causing a mandatory city-wide evacuation and the loss of 2,400 homes and commercial structures.1 The fire was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016, and was fully extinguished on August 2, 2017.2

Ft. McMurray Fire Location

The fire spread across northern Alberta and then eastward into Saskatchewan, consuming forested areas and impacting Athabasca oil sands operations.

Impact on Oil Sands Operations

The wildfire halted Athabasca oil sands production at facilities north of Fort McMurray. Shell Canada shut down output at its Albian Sands mining operation, located approximately 70 km (43 mi) north of Fort McMurray. The company said its priority was to get employees and their families out of the region, and provide capacity at its work camp for some of the evacuees. Shell also provided its landing strip to fly employees and their families to Calgary or Edmonton and provided two teams to support firefighting efforts in the area.2

2016 Ft. McMurray Wildfire Satellite View
A night-time infrared view of the 2016 Ft. McMurray wildfire from NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite on May 5, 2016 at 0956 UTC shows the locations of oil and gas operations relative to the fire.

Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada also scaled back operations. Suncor’s Millennium and North Steepbank mines were two of the largest and oldest oilsands mining operations in the Fort McMurray area, and Syncrude’s Mildred Lake oilsands mine is located 35 km (22 mi) north of Fort McMurray. The companies accommodated another 2,000 evacuees each at their work camps. On May 7, Syncrude shut down all site and processing operations, removing 4,800 employees from the area. On May 16, all 665 rooms at Blacksands Executive Lodge, a work camp, burned in the wildfire.2

Approximately one million barrels of oil a day, equal to a quarter of Canada’s oil production, was halted as a result of the fire in May 2016. This continued into June at a rate of 700,000 barrels per day. The lost output was estimated to cost the Albertan economy $70 million per day. The scaled back operations, along with a refinery outage in Edmonton, caused many gas stations to run out of gas throughout Western Canada.2

Financial analysts observed that the industry was producing normal volumes in the three-month period after the fire was under control. Yet, the wildfire is considered the most expensive disaster in Canadian history, topping several billion dollars in insurance payouts.2

Colin Woods of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) gives a first-hand account of the response and how his agency handled the crisis in this short documentary.


The Speed of Trust: The Horse River Wildfire

Colin Woods: In the northeastern part of Alberta there’s a city called Fort McMurray, it’s located in the Boreal forests of Canada. Back in the 1700s fur trading is how Fort McMurray came to be and today it’s all about oil production. North of Fort McMurray is the third largest oil reserve in the world. In May of 2016 it was an unusually dry spring and it was wildfire season. On May second a wildfire began to encroach on the city, people weren’t all that worried because it’s not uncommon to have wildfires start in the area. On May fourth winds shifted unexpectedly and the city caught on fire.

Speaker 2: It was late afternoon where the fire grew rapidly and dramatically and caught, I think a lot of people living in this community, by surprise.

Colin Woods: State of emergency was declared and 90,000 people had to leave the city.

Speaker 3: Hasty exit. That might have been last time I ever saw my house right there.

Colin Woods: I received the call to come to Fort McMurray so I went shopping, picked up some extra fuel, some food, and hopped in my truck and got on my way. As I headed up Highway 63 they were all point south bound as I was driving north bound into the city. The smoke plume that you are driving towards I’ve never seen a picture that does it justice. Every few miles it kept looking larger, your instincts tell you to turn around and go the other way. I made my way to the REOC which is the Regional Emergency Operations Center. We were stationed inside the evacuated city, you betcha there was smoke and fire all around.
You have your frontline responders or your boots on the ground, then you have the REOC which is the war room or area where we coordinate that frontline response. Any of the key people that would have a stake in the recovery of Fort McMurray were in that room, it was a beehive of human activity, there were people coming and going in every direction.

First night I ended up sleeping in my truck, the second night they got me into a work camp ran by the oil and gas producers, they weren’t ready for the influx of people. When I went to check in there I noticed that the room was unmade and I went back to the camp attendant and he told me, “No problem,” and he reached under the counter and grabbed a pile of sheets and put them down on the counter and said, “There you go,” and then when I got there I realized that he had given me two fitted sheets for my mattress and two little bath towel floor mats for towels.

I was one of about 30 people in the REOC war room. I was trying to understand how do I get the information I need, who’s who in the room. The emergency response to this fire was massive, there was over 4,000 firefighters from Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South Africa. There were over 179 helicopters, there was six air tankers, and there were over 479 pieces of heavy equipment.

15% of the city was lost, there were abandoned vehicles everywhere, buildings, hotels, gas stations were all burned down to rubble and ash. Some of the images that really stood out in my mind were you’d see houses that were completely gone but their metal swing sets were standing in the yard, the two chains hanging but the seat was burned off. I’d compare it to seeing like a war torn city on TV.

The wildfire is officially Horse River Fire number nine although it has been commonly referred to as the Beast. The fire was burning 90 to 120 feet per minute, the total perimeter of the fire was approximately 650 miles. It was vital that we protect the human life, beyond that the fire was so large it was about protecting assets, what was critical infrastructure. Of course it was things like the hospitals but it was also about protecting our large oil infrastructure facilities.

Speaker 4: The devastating wildfires have already turned the vibrant city of Fort McMurray into a ghost town. Now the area between Timberlea and Fort McKay where big oil companies operate is at risk.

Colin Woods: I recall stories of great efforts of trying to stop a propane storage facility from exploding. We live in a more increasingly energy dependent society, the loss of this oil production would have a direct impacts to fuel supplies, to manufacturers, it would have an immediate impact on our economy, it would have immediate impact on the world’s energy supply.

Day to life inside the REOC was constantly risk assessing, constantly triaging. This fire became so immense it defied logic, it would spark up in different directions. Sometimes it raged to the north hard, risked reentering the city again as well as stretching into our energy operations. You’d have it under control and have the perimeter secure on one side and then that afternoon the winds would do a 180 on you, the smoldering fire would pick up and catch again.

Your nerves are going the whole time, there were times when the fire got close and the smoke got thick around the REOC so it’s real, keep the gas tank full, keep your supplies with you. I think one of the greatest learnings from this wildfire was it takes everybody. When you bring a whole bunch of people to the table well they all recognize what’s important to their group, but what’s important as a whole for the region that shared understanding when you’re trying to decide what critical assets to protect. Having that common knowledge makes a difference.

After a month we were winning, the rain came and we got control of this fire to where it stopped becoming such a threat. This was an amazing success story, we saved 85% of the city, we evacuated 90,000 people, no human lives were lost, and we did it all in 30 days.

The success of emergency management is about collaboration, we would not have had the success that we had if it wasn’t for our regulated parties, our industry partners. It’s easy to put off networking meetings and lunches because everyone’s so busy in their day, it’s too late once the incident happens, you need to go out now, today. You need to build relationships and establish trust with your key players of your organization. It is vital in time of crisis, that speed of trust will make the difference in an emergency response.

It’s really amazing how people come together and how communities come together in time of crisis. Driving home for my last time what I saw was just about every third pickup truck was towing a trailer with a Bobcat on it, it was a time for opportunity to rebuild and regrow the city and to establish itself again.


1. Landis, M. S., Edgerton, E. S., White, E. M., Wentworth, G. R., Sullivan, A. P., & Dillner, A. M. (2018). The impact of the 2016 Fort McMurray Horse River wildfire on ambient air pollution levels in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Alberta, Canada. Science of the Total Environment618, 1665-1676.

2. 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 25, 2020 from

Images: “Ft. McMurray Wildfire” by DarrenRD licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; “Fort McMurray Fire Location” by awmcphee, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire NASA-NOAA Satellite View” by NOAA/NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons