With only one road in and out of town, the safe evacuation of Fort McMurray on May 3 was anything but an easy task.
Media from around the world have marveled at the fact that officials managed to get all 88,000 people out of the city, with only two tragic losses of life in an accident on Highway 881. The speed of the fire, which moved 30 metres/minute at some points, necessitated quick decision-making from leaders at the Regional Emergency Operations Centre.
One of those key decisions was to split the traffic north and south, a decision that was spearheaded by Executive Director of Community and Policing Services Dale Bendfeld. The call has been touted by many, including Fire Chief Darby Allen, as the one that saved the most lives during the evacuation.
“Definitely a life-saving decision,” Allen said, noting that Assistant Deputy Chief of Emergency Management Chris Graham was also involved in creating the plan. “We basically drew a line on the map and said ‘ok, from here it’s going to go north.'”
Bendfeld, a former Canadian Armed Forces Lieutenant-Colonel in the infantry and RCMP officer, said he used his background experience to help analyse the situation.
“I really positioned the city as on a battlefield,” Bendfeld said. “Where were things coming, where were threats going? What was our primary purpose?”
He noted that with the number of people that needed to get out of the city, if they sent everyone south would have endangered a lot of lives.
“There’s only so much room on a road,” he said. “Considering time and space, there’s no way I get everyone out of the city to the south.”
Even with the split traffic, those who went south experienced major traffic jams on Fort McMurray. Many posted on social media that flames were on either side while they were stuck in traffic, and it took most 10 or more hours to arrive in Edmonton. Officials estimated that 25,000 residents had fled north of the city. Had they gone south, Chief Allen suggested it wouldn’t have gone well.
“We knew that if we evacuated Timberlea and Thickwood and had everyone go south, that wasn’t going to work,” Allen said. “I believe [the decision to move them north] saved many people’s preservations (lives).”
Both Allen and Bendfeld said that there were some doubts whether the plan was the best decision at the time. The fire was moving in a northerly direction, sometimes at speeds of 30-40 metres/minute. There were concerns that it would move towards the oilsands camps who had opened their doors to evacuees.
Ultimately, Bendfeld said they had to deal with the immediate threat.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “We get people to safety and then think about the next steps afterwards.”
“It gave us time to breath, to figure out what to do next.”
In the end, everyone who evacuated north was able to make their way out of the region by air and road within the week.
In the future, Bendfeld says he’d like to see more roads in and out of town so he doesn’t have to make a similar decision moving forward.
“The more roads, the more access points you have, the better it is for safety.”