By Scott Anderson
In May 2016, the infamous Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada-among the largest in the province’s history-destroyed 2,400 structures and forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents.
More than 1,100 firefighters, including Canadian military forces, deployed to fight the treacherous blaze. Among those coming to the aid of this community in crisis were two northern Alberta Oshkosh Airport Products customers: Syncrude and Suncor, two of the largest energy producing companies in the province, each with a history of responsible operations, safety, and a strong commitment to environmental sustainability.
|1 Members of Suncor’s emergency services stand next to the company’s Striker 8×8 that responded to the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, Canada. (Photo courtesy of Suncor.)|
As it became clear that the wildfire was gathering momentum, Suncor and Syncrude responded quickly with apparatus and firefighting personnel to save homes, protect critical infrastructure, and escort caravans of citizens away from danger. Syncrude Emergency Services sent a Striker 8×8 vehicle and a second aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) unit, and Suncor sent another Striker 8×8, nicknamed “Goliath,” into Fort McMurray. Their vehicles and personnel played a crucial role throughout the emergency.
“This tragic wildfire was an all-hands-on-deck crisis, and to have Suncor and Syncrude contribute personnel and equipment to the effort exemplifies the spirit of people doing whatever possible to help their neighbors in need,” says Jeff Resch, Oshkosh Airport Products Group vice president and general manager. “We were very proud to hear the many reports on how our Striker apparatus were able to contribute-and in a significant manner.”
Terry Carnochan, Suncor senior emergency response officer, recalls, “We received a mutual-aid request and responded with a total of five apparatus. By the time we arrived at the staging area, the fire was surrounding the city, and some subdivisions were getting gobbled up. Mariah Williams, from my team, and I went to a condo structure fire in the Striker and were directed to an area where firefighters couldn’t gain access because of hilly ground. We got in there, extended the Snozzle, and quickly knocked down the structure fire in that sector.”
“There were trees right in front of us, and we were able to lift the Snozzle up and reach through to gain access,” explains Williams. “There were a few municipal aerials there, but they go straight up and can’t articulate like the Snozzle.”
Lieutenant Kevin Graves, of Syncrude Emergency Services (and the project team leader to source and spec Syncrude’s two Strikers), was assigned to operate one of the Striker ARFF vehicles at Fort McMurray. “There’s no doubt that the Striker did an outstanding job, and there are houses standing today because of it,” offers Graves. “In one instance, we completed exposure protection on a dozen homes that were backed up to a green belt with big evergreens; there was near-zero visibility at this time. Our exposure protection helped save those homes.”
2 Syncrude Emergency Services sent a Striker 8×8 vehicle and a second aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) unit. (Photo courtesy of Syncrude Emergency Services.)
Suncor’s Jonathan Roth recalls his experience as the fire bore down on Noralta Lodge, a worker camp located 20 miles north of Fort McMurray. “When occupied, there are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people living in the camp, and it includes several three-story structures,” says Roth. “We soaked all the buildings for an hour or two and, when the fire came, we monitored the north end and put down hot spots that came up because of flying embers. Unfortunately, there was a fire that wiped out another nearby camp. Thankfully, we were able to save Noralta.”
In other instances, a Striker was able to aid local firefighters who were near exhaustion while battling the raging fires and countless flare-ups. “Over in the McKinley area, fire was quickly approaching a structure,” says Graves. “We were able to put our Snozzle boom 50 feet up in the air and rain down a master stream. The crews already on scene appreciated the support. That’s as far as that fire made it in McKinley.”
In another situation, Graves received a call to assist a truck crew in protecting a water pumping station. He responded with Syncrude’s Strikers. “When we arrived, it didn’t look good,” explains Graves. “The fire was right at the fence line where the engine had lines and men deployed. My captain, Aaron Morison, lined me up, and we pushed back the fire to save the building and break the fire’s momentum.” He adds, “As we backed out, I noticed the grass underneath us was on fire! I was very happy I left a couple of gallons in the tank and was able to snuff it out.”
|3 Syncrude’s Striker 8×8 in service during the Fort McMurray fire. (Photo courtesy of Syncrude Emergency Services.)|
Meanwhile, the Suncor team devoted resources to keep the fire from crossing highway 63. “There’s a little road alongside the highway, and we had both Suncor ARFF units staged there,” says Roth. “As embers would fly onto and across the highway, we kept putting out hot spots. It was a constant couple of days devoted to protecting the highway and soaking the trees for a length of about three to four kilometers.”
The reasons for protecting this section of highway were crystal clear. “If the fire had gotten to the other side, there was the potential for a tank farm and a propane holding yard to be in danger,” says Carnochan. “The fire actually did jump right to the west of the propane holding yard, but our ARFF vehicles were able to put the fire out in a couple of minutes.”
Staying in Service
Throughout their time in Fort McMurray, the Strikers earned a reputation for performance and reliability. “I want everyone on the Striker assembly line that put a bolt on Syncrude #9 to be proud of the work they did,” says Graves. “That truck was put to the test around the clock for days. It was a major asset in the fight against ‘the beast,’ and it did not disappoint.”
|4 One task for Syncrude’s Striker 8×8 was exposure protection for dozens of homes. (Photo courtesy of Syncrude Emergency Services.)|
Oshkosh Airport Products dealer, Team Eagle Ltd., closely tracked the Striker trucks’ support requirements throughout the endeavor. “The main issues we encountered were air filters plugging up because of smoke and debris and tires and wheels needing replacement because of driving over numerous obstructions,” says Ken Bartlett, service manager at Team Eagle. “We flew a supply of replacement filters to Calgary, where Suncor’s executive jet immediately shuttled them to the Fort Hills fire hall. For fresh tires and wheels, we made arrangements with Calgary and Edmonton airports and Kal Tire. Other than that, the trucks performed flawlessly. They never broke down. They just did what they were supposed to do.”
In the aftermath and looking back, much was lost. But much was accomplished by the 1,100 firefighters, and examples of courage in the face of tremendous loss are abundant. “I need to mention the amazing dedication by all, including those who lost their own homes,” says Graves. “Seven Syncrude Emergency Services personnel lost their homes, and not one of them dropped out of the fight to save our city. They continued to battle to save other homes, even knowing that they had already lost theirs. Ultimately, we had the right tools in the hands of dedicated, trained, and experienced firefighters, and that’s what mattered most.”
“None of us has seen a fire like this in our lifetime,” says Smith. “And, to our knowledge, it’s the first time around here where ARFF vehicles have been used on a wildfire.”
SCOTT ANDERSON owns a marketing and communications company headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has written about first responders and the fire and emergency apparatus industry for more than 20 years.