The Beauty of The Beast
On May 3rd at 3pm, the team at Noralta Lodge gathered around their televisions to watch the updates on the evolving Fort McMurray Fire. A mandatory evacuation order had been issued for two Fort McMurray neighbourhoods, and by 6:20 p.m. that order would apply to the entire city. For half of the population, the route south was still open. These residents would drive for hours down the backlogged Highway 63, and found safety in one of the nearby communities.
But, for 17,000 of the displaced, the only route that remained was north, up highway 63 and into comparative isolation. A hundred years ago all they would have found was Boreal forest that stretched endlessly along the Athabasca River. But today, 26 kilometers up that road, those 17,000 would enter the stronghold of Alberta’s oil and gas industry and into Noralta Lodge’s Fort McMurray Village. It is a workforce accommodation facility designed to host up to 3,500 guests. And that was precisely where officials told them to go.
Noralta Lodge isn’t new to opening its doors to the community. When the Wood Buffalo region hosted the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games, Noralta Lodge stepped up as a diamond sponsor and created the Official Athletes Village. But even then, the company only hosted 2,500 athletes, 300 technical officials, and roughly 1,000 industry guests. It was a fraction of the human tsunami now rolling toward their camp.
As the staff at the Fort McMurray Village prepared to shift their focus to welcoming weary evacuees, the team at the company’s head office began planning the logistics for this influx of people. They knew their Fort McMurray Village was already near capacity, and far too small to handle this unexpected surge.As their rooms started running out, the calls from other lodging providers began pouring in. Everyone in the region was prepared to help. Rooms in other camps were offered and supplies were organized and delivered. For a fiercely competitive industry, where discretion is tantamount to success, the days following the evacuation were characterized by cooperation and transparency.
While the evacuation was taking place, a communications committee was formed in Noralta Lodge’s Nisku office and later, at the Regional Emergency Operations Centre. Tweets and media advisories went out encouraging the displaced to head as far north as possible, all the way to Noralta Lodge’s Grey Wolf, another 50 kilometers up the 63. To help the process, Noralta Lodge staff set up staging areas at their Fort McMurray Village to direct evacuees to open camps, but only after providing them with some much needed food and water.
And so they went. The people of Fort McMurray moved calmly and carefully away from the fire, and, at times, away from their loved ones who’d been cut off and were heading south. They moved so orderly, in fact, that the President and CEO of Noralta Lodge, Corey Smith, couldn’t help but recognize it as one of the many virtues of the people and the industry that define the region.
“Nowhere else in the world,” said Smith, “would you see people evacuate in such an orderly fashion. That’s a product of the industry that this community supports. It’s a product of a people so accustomed to morning safety checks and crisis planning that they’re able to drive through hell and never once lose their heads. Anywhere else in the world people would have been driving over lawns and creating more chaos to get out of there.”
And it’s true. For all the pain and loss the fire created it shone a light on the strength that exists in this community. It showed that the foundation of this region’s success is far deeper than a natural resource. It’s the community that makes it strong: from the people who call Fort McMurray their home, to those who fly in and out week after week, to the companies that have committed themselves to projects for years to come. That sense of camaraderie has never been more apparent than when, one by one, corporations revealed themselves not as “industry players” but as true corporate citizens.
And that’s important, because it’s something that hasn’t always been understood. In the past there were those who considered the “camp world” a parasite to the Fort McMurray community. That their fly-in-fly-out clients reaped the bounty of Wood Buffalo’s land and infrastructure, but did little to give back. If Noralta Lodge’s support of the Summer Games was the first indication these sentiments were misplaced, it was the entire industry’s open-door reaction to the The Beast’s sudden and devastating attack that was the guarantee. From the industry’s head offices and operations across the province, support and coordination continued to pour in.
At Noralta Lodge’s Fort McMurray Village, staff and industry workers personified this commitment to support. The stories are too plentiful to be told, but as soon as the masses of tired families, with children, pets, and elderly parents, began to arrive, everyone did what they could to help. Workers gave up their rooms so that the displaced had a place to stay, lodge staff ground through 48-hour shifts to accommodate the weary, and one selfless employee, whose own home was lost in the fire, spent the following days helping others find accommodations, food, comfort, and support.
Of course it wasn’t just the industry stepping up for the residents and their community, they were there for each other, too. On May 17, when the fires threatened to devour Noralta Lodge’s Fort McMurray Village, it was their industry peers who rushed to the scene with private firefighting trucks and tankers to help Noralta Lodge staff push the blaze back. And, after days of hard work, they saved the lodges.
This is the special thing about this Beast, for all its horror it was able to bring out the beauty of everyone who calls this region home. The industry showed its commitment to the community by putting the people of the region above all else; the people showed their strength by staying calm and supportive while their city was in crisis; and the city showed its resilience by coming home undefeated and ready to rebuild.
Just like the work that’s been done in this demanding landscape, if we try hard enough we can get through it. And if we get through this, we can get through anything.