How oilsands facilities prepare in case of another wildfire

How oilsands facilities prepare in case of another wildfire

When a large fire begins to roar around Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, local and regional firefighters join forces with the fire crews who work for oilsands companies to fight the threat.

That co-operation is unique to the area, and has been tested many times, but the scale of the destruction during last year's wildfire caught everyone off-guard, and the system broke down during those critical first few days of the disaster.

With the one-year anniversary of the wildfire a few weeks away and a hot summer approaching, oil and gas companies are working to improve their protection and response in case of another monumental fire. 

Information-sharing was the first problem.  

With so many personnel involved in the effort, firefighters had a tough time communicating with their local counterparts and provincial wildfire-fighting crews.

"To get all of those people communicating and following your chain of command correctly was one of the largest obstacles we had," said Mel Angelstad, a firefighter for Suncor. "The province ended up sending us radios so that we could talk to the city and our partners." 

Information delays

In emergency situations like these — spread out over a large geographical area, rapidly changing, and with various emergency crews involved — it's critical that all the responders have the latest information about hazards they may encounter and the strategies for providing the best defence. 

Bruno Francouer, who oversees all of Suncor's oilsands assets, also points to communication gaps in the early response of the fire.

"For example, we had really good fire analysis information — and with the size of our company, the scope of our company, we have this information. [The government] had information, but I think ours was better," said Francouer.

"But after a few days, there was no such 'our information, your information,' it was all together. I'm sure if it happened again, the first day would be organized."

Francouer admits the level of collaboration could have been better, but said, "We were surprised by the magnitude of the disaster.

"It's like Monday morning quarterback — it's easy to second-guess this and that, but when you look at the overall response, I think we did really well," Francouer said.

Firebreaks expanded

The rules around firebreaks are another area being reconsidered.

The province governs the permissions and regulations around building natural fire barriers but doesn't require companies to have them.

During the Fort McMurray fire, some oilsands facilities had firebreaks in place, while others did not.

"Before, it was never mentioned that we should have firebreaks. I think we've learned from that," said Francouer.

As the wildfire risk escalated, crews worked quickly to build barriers to protect the massive industrial buildings. 

"Pushing out firebreaks, establishing what I think were probably the world's largest sprinkler systems at the time on the fly — those are the types of things that we initiated through our emergency command post," said Peter Zebedee, former general manager of Shell's Albian Sands mine.  

Preparing for the worst, the company even moved all of its equipment into the middle of the mine, where it would be best protected from flames.

Companies are now talking with the provincial government to ensure temporary firebreaks constructed during the wildfire will remain and become permanent protection.

"I think we would maintain them going forward," said John Whelan, with Imperial Oil. The company is reviewing its entire response to the wildfire because, Whelan said, there are lessons to be learned and "shame on us if we don't."

The fire also taught oil companies that their safety training and emergency exercises required updating, and they're working on that, as well.

Oil facilities become relief centres

When thousands of evacuees flooded into oilsands camps, companies had to act quickly to find available beds, food and other supplies. Staff scrambled to gauge what they needed amid uncertainty over how long the Fort McMurray evacuation would last.

"I don't know if we were totally overwhelmed, I mean, it's a huge influx of people," said Chad Beaton, with Canadian Natural Resources. "It wasn't easy, but we were able to accommodate quite well to make sure everyone was looked after." 

Beaton remembers being concerned about whether the company would be able to fly in supplies or if the airstrip would be too busy with military and first responders.

Oilsands facilities became humanitarian relief centres during the crisis, even delivering fuel to stranded motorists. Suncor and Shell each flew out around 10,000 people from their respective oilsands facilities on planes contracted from about a dozen different airlines.

Oilsands companies are confident they will be able to ramp up quicker to respond to such a massive emergency next time.

"For the most part, we got it right," said Dan Drew, the head of security at Shell's Albian Sands and a former military officer who served 36 years with the Canadian Forces in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Balkans. 

"It ended up turning out like a military operation," he said, describing the need to be patient and compassionate with the evacuees. "Just like a major peacekeeping operation, we had to deal with those people and look after them, and our guys did an excellent job."