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How It All Unfolded: The Story

When you evacuate almost 90,000 people from a community, there’s a story behind each of them.

We have gathered a timeline of events, walking through the days before and after the evacuation. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Greg Halinda has shared a photo essay to tell the story when there are no words left. There are stories from those who stepped up when we needed them the most, and stories from those who had to flee. We have stories from heroes, and stories thanking them.

These are the stories that make #FortMcMurrayStrong


Saving a City - How The Oil Companies Stepped In To Help

(2 votes)

When the evacuation order sounded for Fort McMurray as ‘The Beast’ further reached into our lives with its destructive force, everyone joined the ranks of one great big family.

Even the oil sands industry stepped up to become an integral part of that family. As companies opened their doors to aid residents fleeing the massive forest fire,ask any of them why they did it, and all would simply respond: it was the right thing to do.

Shell Canada closed its Albian Sands operation, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, focusing on getting employees and their families out of the region while opening Albian Village, its 2,000 person work camp, to evacuees. The company evacuated nonessential staff to make room for those who needed it most.

The company also used its landing strip to fly employees and their families to Calgary or Edmonton and provided two teams to support firefighting efforts in the region.

Evacuees were flown to safety and once the wildfire was under control, were returned to reclaim vehicles that were left behind. When evacuees returned, their gas tanks were filled, they were provided with food and water, and there was even a mechanic on standby for those having mechanical issues. It was a scene repeated at several oil sands sites.

In a statement posted on Facebook to Shell Albian Sands employees, General Manager Peter Zebedee, said the “demonstration of care, compassion and capacity by all those working over the past few days to co-ordinate our response has been amazing. This response is being supported by a much broader team in Edmonton, Calgary, and across global Shell – we are very thankful.

“I am incredibly proud to be part of this team, and humbled to witness how we have responded in the face of an extremely difficult set of circumstances.”

He noted the transformation of the work camp into a safe shelter for evacuees in a matter of hours. In five days, Shell evacuated over 8,000 people and their families from its site without incident. This was an enormous collaborative effort between Shell Albian Sands Operations and Logistics and its aerodrome operator (Canadian Base Operators) working together with multiple airlines who generously allotted planes and staff: Flair, Enerjet, Canadian North, Sunwest, R1 Airlines, Westjet, Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, the Royal Canadian Air Force and others.

“And we made sure that people were able to take their other family members with them – from dogs, cats, and bunnies, to goats, pigs, lizards – in an operation that we are now affectionately calling our own ‘Noah’s Ark’.”

Looking ahead, the company will continue to provide support and care to its employees, their families, and the community at this challenging time. It is also looking at ways to support recovery and rebuild efforts.

“Time and time again, I have witnessed the resiliency of this industry and this community,” said Zebedee. “It’s very moving, although not surprising, to see how selflessly people are working to take care of each other. It gives me great confidence that whatever challenges may lie ahead, we will overcome them, together.”

During the mandatory evacuation on May 3rd, Suncor Canada was able to safely move over 10,000 people, including employees, their families and Fort McMurray residents, out of the region.

“We flew 59 return flights in our own aircraft and chartered commercial airlines for additional support, and 127 flights flew in and out of the Firebag aerodrome,” recalls Erin Rees, media relations and issues management advisor.

“One single Sunjet flight accommodated 36 animals, a menagerie that included cats, dogs, hedgehogs even rabbits.”

She pointed out that employees, leaders, contractors, retirees and Suncor’s board of directors personally contributed $547,000 to the Canadian Red Cross and the United Way of Fort McMurray fire funds. This total is 3.5 times higher than any previous SunCares Humanitarian Grant program. The Suncor Energy Foundation matched these donations for a total contribution of $1.094 million. 

“I’m very proud, but not surprised, to see how everyone has come together to support each other during this difficult time,” added Steve Williams, Suncor CEO, in one employee email. “I’m proud...of who we are as a company and how our colleagues are making a difference.

“It’s also inspiring to see how we came together for each other, responded quickly and never compromised on safety. Thanks to the tireless efforts of our first responders, so much of the community of Fort McMurray remains intact. I have been truly inspired by the efforts of those heroes who stayed behind to protect our city and our industry.”

Syncrude Canada was another neighbour that opened its doors and put its resources at the forefront to aid Fort McMurray and its residents.

Will Gibson, a spokesman for Syncrude, said Syncrude’s emergency response personnel were involved in fighting the fires in Fort McMurray through its mutual aid agreement with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Initially called on by the Fort McMurray Fire Department during the afternoon of May 3, they spent the next week helping fight the wildfire in Fort McMurray and the region.

That effort took a healthy list of equipment and personnel to respond to this crisis:

  • One pumper fire truck
  • Two all-wheel drive ARFF fire trucks
  • One multi-lift fire truck
  • One fire hose retrieval and fire hose module
  • One firefighting foam module
  • Two wildland all-terrain firefighting vehicles
  • Two 3,000 gallons per minute portable fire pumps
  • One mobile command bus
  • One 2,500 gallon water tanker – with two truck operators
  • Three dozers
  • Five light vehicles
  • One fuel truck with two truck drivers
  • Forty-two emergency services personnel (fire specialist, mechanic and emergency service leaders)
  • Sixteen fire brigade members
  • Eight heavy equipment operators (dozer operators)
  • Two mine leaders to support dozer operations

“In addition to this, Syncrude took in evacuees fleeing north from Fort McMurray on May 3. This amounted to about 1,500 non-essential employees as well as their families, including pets. Working with other industry partners and the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, we managed to airlift these evacuees out of the region by May 6.”

And the giving didn’t stop there as Syncrude Canada made a $100,000 donation to the Canadian Red Cross to help those affected by massive wildfires across Wood Buffalo.

“We thank the Red Cross for assisting people in need as we deal with the devastating effects of the forest fires in Fort McMurray,” said Mark Ward, Syncrude president and CEO. “We are deeply grateful to all emergency responders, volunteers and citizens for their support.”

In addition to the donation, Syncrude provided immediate financial assistance to employees to help with emergency expenses. Syncrude also evacuated many workers and their families to safe places and provided accommodations and support to those remaining on site. 

In a video message dated May 12, Ward described the forest fire as a disaster unprecedented in Alberta’s history.

He expressed heartfelt thanks to the countless people who responded in so many important ways.

As people were forced to flee their homes, the emergency teams rushed in with bravery and courage and “we’re eternally grateful for their hard work, dedication in protecting people and their property.”

He recognized that many Albertans and Canadians from across the country opened their homes and hearts, and gave time to those suddenly in need.

“You have shown endless generosity and support, and we’re truly grateful. Your kindness and compassion will be the foundation upon which we rebuild our community.

“On behalf of Syncrude’s 4,800 employees and their families, thank you so very much.” 

He also expressed sincere gratitude for the people of Syncrude for the safe shutdown and evacuation of the site, and their willingness to help even though some faced incredibly difficult personal circumstances. 

The moment Fort McMurray was evacuated, Noralta Lodge began its assistance by using its Fort McMurray Village as the muster point for those who fled the city north.

That location, however, did not have the capacity to handle the estimated influx of evacuees headed that way – 17,000 in total – noted Blaire McCalla, marketing and communications manager. 

“So we liaised with producers and other lodging providers, and began relaying industry information with community leaders, media and the public via social and tradition media to send residents northward, to other facilities who had kindly opened their doors.

“We were able to feed all who came to our sites, and give rooms to those we could, often putting families of three or four into single occupancy rooms. We endeavoured to provide a safe haven for those who fled their homes.

“For over 2,000 evacuees, we provided a bed to sleep in, and served thousands of meals during the evacuation of Fort McMurray.”

Once all residents were safely evacuated, Noralta switched gears, providing accommodations to hundreds of first responders, and delivered food and supplies to those working in town to help make it re-habitable. Noralta also provided food and supplies to communities who needed it, including Fort McMurray #468 First Nation, south of town.

“As an organization, we are very grateful to all of our staff, first responders and community volunteers who worked tirelessly to welcome and care for our important guests. We are so proud of the extra effort they extended,” said McCalla.

“We would also be remiss to not acknowledge the generous support Noralta Lodge has received throughout the fire situation.”

A number of companies stepped up in a big way to support Noralta efforts to feed and house evacuees and first responders. Suppliers came forth to provide much needed food, water, and provisions for the atypical guest mix, including pet supplies and children’s care items.

“We could not have met the ongoing needs of the community without our partners’ generous support.”

Then on May 17, Noralta Lodge found itself in need as fire surrounded the property after destroying a neighbouring lodge.

“Without the generous support of industry fire crews and community partners, we would have faced catastrophic loss to our property. We are immensely grateful for this support.” 

McCalla added Noralta Lodge is proud to be members of the Wood Buffalo community in a position to help.

“Our hearts are with the community and we will remain engaged in the efforts to rebuild the Fort McMurray community and our economy.”

Williams echoed that statement saying, “We are now looking ahead to re-entering the community, rebuilding and recovery. … I do say this from the heart. I lived in Fort McMurray. My children went to school in Fort McMurray and the resilience of the community is something to be proud of.

“And that is what you are going to see in this next phase as we start to pull together as an industry, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to help rebuild this great community.” 


One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.