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Tales from the inferno

It started as a small northern Albertan wildfire and by the time it had gotten everyone’s attention, it was large enough and hot enough to be creating its own weather front and even its own lightning.


July 12, 2016
By Jim Chliboyko
Close calls It started as a small northern Albertan wildfire

The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that was thought to have started May 1 eventually swept through parts of the town of Fort McMurray and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. The fire looks to be one of the more costly wildfires in Canadian history, eclipsing the costs of the 2011 Slave Lake fire, which destroyed a large portion of that Alberta community.

The consequences of the fire are all yet to be realized. Aside from its obvious local impact, experts are predicting not if but how it will affect gas prices this summer because of its impact on the local oilfields. But the most obvious visual reference to the fire’s effect on business was the destruction, on live TV, of the local Super 8 Hotel just off Highway 63.

It should affect the rental industry, too, in some way. Telephone service didn’t seem to be restored to some of the smaller rental operations when Canadian Rental Service attempted to call to ask about the fire. And many of the other companies deferred to their respective communications departments.  

Many of the rental operators in town are centered in the MacKenzie Industrial Park, an area of circular roads, and a several-minute drive from the destroyed Super 8. But according to a quick look at the Municipality of Wood-Buffalo’s fire assessment tool on their website showed most of the businesses in the industrial park appeared to be still standing. That doesn’t mean, however, that equipment wasn’t affected or that there might have been heat or smoke damage to buildings or equipment.

However, it also appears that the fire made it close, as far as the outer perimeter of Maclennan Crescent, a road which acts as the outside border on the east side of the industrial park. In late May, the municipality stated that the forecast to let people back into that particular area was June 4, one of the latest. Media outlets were reporting after the May long weekend that town residents and business owners would be allowed back in the first week in June, in a staggered schedule, depending on where they were located in town.

Many of the larger rental companies moved their local operations to Edmonton and others were active in helping out people during the hectic evacuation of town. United Rentals, for instance, had two trucks patrolling the area with free water and gas for evacuees who were running low.

Some – but not all – rental operators made note of the fire on their websites or in social media. On the Pioneer Off-road Rentals website, it said “Due to the current fire and evacuation situation in Fort McMurray the Fort McMurray branch is closed until further notice.” By the time of publication, calls to their phone number did not go through.

The Leavitt Machinery rental location in town posted the following statement on their website: “We would like to thank all of the first response teams and disaster relief organizations involved in fighting the fires in Fort McMurray. During this difficult time and in an effort to help provide assistance, Leavitt Machinery will be donating to these first response teams the use of any materials handling equipment we can provide such as forklifts, telehandlers, generators or light towers. Our hearts go out to all of Fort McMurray in this tough time.”

When contacted in late May, Aaron Bomke of Leavitt in Edmonton said that the first responders hadn’t yet taken Leavitt up on its offer.

“We have worked with a few people that are sending product up there to use forklifts. It might be more towards the secondary responders,” he said.

And while the Leavitt team was still unable to inspect its property in late May, early reports were good.

“The property itself is standing, the equipment is still there,” said Bomke. “We haven’t been allowed to go in to determine the damage. It got close enough that the alarms were going off.”

Like with many, the date where they could go back has kept changing with the situation, as the fire was still active.

“We were tentatively working on going back in sooner, then it got pushed back and all of a sudden a day later that’s when they were evacuating the camps,” he said.

Speaking to another rental company employee a week after the height of the fire, he said that while he couldn’t comment on the state of the business, he knew his colleagues were on a seven-day schedule (as opposed to the standard five-day week).

Meanwhile, The Globe and Mailreported that United Rentals, for one, “sent two fuel tankers with a group of other volunteers in pickups packed with fuel, bottled water, diapers, apples and granola bars,” the idea being to help stranded drivers fleeing the town. Furthermore, the Globe and Mail reported that of United’s 180 employees in town, 14 had lost their homes.

One rental operator who didn’t want to be identified was still prevented from going into town when Canadian Rental Service caught up with him but, as far as he knew, his property was untouched by fire. Though, he added, there was a lot of rumour going around at the time.

The situation was frightening for the Finning crew in town, as well.

“The flames were almost to our property line; it was really, really close,” said Finning’s Don McEachern. “We havent determined (any damage) yet. We haven’t gone back into the facility. It’s a little too early to tell. Our building didn’t burn down.”

“Sometimes you can’t tell (if there’s damage) until you start firing up HVAC units.”


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