On the morning of May 3, 2016 we all thought that we were out of the woods. Staff at H. Wilson Industries (2010) Ltd. woke up to a clear blue sky with air that was free of smoke. All seemed right with the world after a close brush with fire just two days earlier on May 1st.
A wildfire had ignited above the ridgeline of our yard north of the community in the neighbourhood of Parson’s Creek. After a few tense hours, thanks to the diligence of our firefighters and water bombers, the fire was out. However, another fire had started south of the community and was growing.
On that fateful Tuesday morning, as we dived into the second day of startup for the 2016 construction season, crews were participating in safety training, filling out paperwork and organizing equipment for the projects ahead. Meanwhile, the temperature was rising, humidity was falling, and the winds were picking up. At a press conference on the other end of the city about 11 am, regional Fire Chief Darby Allen warned people in a press conference not to “get into a false sense of security.”
“We’re in for a rough day,” he said. “It will wake up and it will come back.”
At 1:00 p.m., we noticed that the sky to the south of the city had a huge billow of smoke. We weren’t overly concerned at the time. Being a community surrounded by Boreal forest, wildfires and the requisite smoky conditions they produce are a common occurrence. However, just an hour later, that billow of smoke had quickly moved north in the form of a dark black-blue mass. It became clear that staff needed to go home to check on their homes, family and pets.
The afternoon went from benign to bedlam, as voluntary evacuations were supplanted by mandatory orders to get out. As the staged evacuations proceeded, roads became clogged, evacuation centres filled, and the fire began chewing through entire neighbourhoods like Beaconhill, Abasand and Waterways. Thousands drove through flames on both sides of the highway as the order to evacuate the entire community.
Images and stories from those crazy hours of chaos, and the hours that followed as tens of thousands went north and south to safety, became global news. Residents on holidays reported watching coverage of the disaster in countries like China, Italy and New Zealand.
We were incredibly touched by the outpouring of support from people and communities across Alberta, Canada and beyond. Throughout H. Wilson, people have shared powerful stories of generosity, kindness and compassion offered by friends, family and strangers.
Our primary concern was the safety of our staff. They all made it out safely, though several ended up losing their homes. In the days and weeks after the evacuation, our focus shifted to the recovery and getting back home to participate in the rebuild. A core group of 15 staff members of H. Wilson was on site by mid-May and worked to repair water and sewer lines as directed by the Regional Emergency Operations Centre. Without power or natural gas to residential areas, and with fire responders getting priority for the limited accommodations that were available, our team stayed in camps 100 km south of town or slept on cots at the recreation centre located on MacDonald Island; some even slept in their vehicles.
The re-entry process began for many of us on June 3rd, exactly one month after we had been forced from our homes. The drive back to Fort McMurray was emotional as we saw the overwhelming devastation; there were also remaining hotspots and fire crews in some areas south of the community. Seeing the huge Canadian flag and firefighters waving on the King Street overpass is a moment many of us will never forget. We were finally home.
As we drove through town, the scope and scale of this fire became clear; forested areas surrounding the city were blackened and “The Beast” came very close to our H. Wilson industry base of operations. The fire was contained using flame retardant; it came within 20 meters of our yard. Our office and shop sustained smoke damage, as well as damage to some equipment and perimeter fencing.
The insurance adjuster, D. S. Cook, was on site, along with a restoration company by June 6th and the cleanup began, consisting of air scrubbers, cleaning of all HVAC systems, washing walls and hard surfaces, removal and replacement of all ceiling tiles and acoustic tiles.
Even before we were officially open for business on June 13th, H. Wilson helped in the construction of a 200-lot campground, providing a location for residents to place campers and live temporarily. On June 28th, municipal council lifted their suspension of all capital projects and all previously signed contracts, or contracts in the process of signing, for H. Wilson were released and approved to commence work. This was great news for our business and our staff, who were excited to get back to work.
The recovery work has begun in earnest. Core businesses are up and running, and many others are becoming operational as the weeks fly by. However, this fire and evacuation has had a profound impact on families, organizations and businesses. It is still not business as usual as the restoration process will be ongoing for some time to come.
“We are here and we are strong,” said Fire Chief Darby Allen in one of his video updates during the evacuation. It is a phrase that sums up the resilient spirit of our community and our company.
On behalf of H. Wilson staff, we would like to thank the Volker Stevin family for reaching out and providing assistance. We are grateful, beyond measure, for the support we received during this historic evacuation. From providing a temporary office to personal connections, from offers of accommodation for our displaced staff members to doing website updates and making donations to the Canadian Red Cross, the Volker Stevin family helped us in so many ways. Thanks will never be enough to express our profound appreciation.