CALGARY – On Tuesday night, after an out-of-control wildfire forced the entire city of Fort McMurray to evacuate, Sheldon Loyer and his fiancée escaped northbound, toward camps set up to house oilfield workers.
Loyer, a heavy-equipment technician, slept in the parking lot in front of his company’s office, before heading back south to meet family in Sylvan Lake, Alta., after hearing that the highway had opened briefly on Wednesday. As they drove, they passed many others who had spent the night on the side of the road as they headed north, searching for a safe place to hole up.
“We were wearing our respirators just so we could breathe,” Loyer said of his drive through the city.
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As fire forced an estimated 88,000 people from the city, oilfield camp providers scrambled to open facilities that had been temporarily closed, due to the collapse in oil prices, to house some of the escapees.
By Wednesday afternoon, there were 10,000 people taking shelter in camps north of Fort McMurray.
Fort McKay First Nation’s CEO of business development Barrie Robb said that as many as 3,000 people spent the night in his community, where the population normally totals 600. The nation owns and operates 10 different businesses and owns interests in oilsands camps in the area, which were opened for Fort McMurray residents.
“About 50 to 60 per cent of camp space was vacant,” Robb said, adding that operators are considering opening even more camps. “Everybody opened everything they could (given the short time frame),”
Oilsands producers – including Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Shell Canada Ltd. and Imperial Oil Ltd. – opened their on-site camps for evacuees, as did camp providers like Civeo Corp. and Black Diamond Group Ltd.
With the initial wave of evacuees taken care of, camp companies are now facing a new challenge: providing food for more than two days.
“The camps themselves are probably okay for another day or two,” Robb said, adding he and others are trying get more food and blankets moved north from their own logistics centres in Edmonton.
Robb said that re-supply trucks had already departed Edmonton for Fort McKay, and the company is monitoring road conditions, and emergency services road blocks, to ensure the food and blankets arrive.
“Right now, we do not have a challenge with resources at the lodges that are open, but obviously, to the extent that if highways are closed or if there’s obstructions to certain areas, that would present a problem,” Civeo spokesperson Chris Gardner said.
It’s really shown how a little community can open its arms and its doors.
It was not clear at mid-day on Wednesday how many additional people would need a safe place to spend the night. An earlier government news conference put the number of people safe and accounted for at 53,000 — including those who headed south.
“We are prepared to open up and provide additional space at our lodges,” Gardner said. About 3,000 people Fort McMurray residents stayed in Civeo’s lodges Tuesday night.
Robb said the catastrophe had brought businesses – partners, competitors and unrelated third-parties – together to look after the evacuees needs. He said Calahoo Meats, a small company northwest of Edmonton, packed up a truck full of food and hit the road after midnight Tuesday night for Fort McKay.
The company arrived at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning with food for the residents.
The disaster has also brought First Nation people together to care for displaced city residents. “McKay people are pretty open anyhow but people opened their doors and said, come and sleep in here or come and use our washroom facilities,” Robb said.
“It’s really shown how a little community can open its arms and its doors,” he said.