Organizing During a Crisis
A case study of the Fort McMurray wildfire
Jason Vanderzwaag flew from Fort McMurray to a meeting in Edmonton the day before the fires broke out in 2016.
watched the whole thing unfold between social media and text messages with friends and family,” he said. “It was difficult to watch.” But that was just the beginning for Vanderzwaag — as a professional engineer with Associated Engineering, he also became one of the project leads in AE’s role of rehabilitating the water system.
Vanderzwaag outlined the challenges of such an undertaking in his talk “Fort McMurray Wildfire: Response, Repair and Recovery of Infrastructure Systems” at the APEGS Annual Meeting.
He said crises go through three distinct phases: response, repair and recovery. During the response phase, one of the challenges is emotional. Municipal staff were dispersed or stressed, and the question of “what needs to be done next?” loomed large. The number one task during the response phase is to protect life and property, he said. “An attitude of just do it, just go out and get it done.”
During the repair phase, it’s about damage assessment and restoring services, which is where AE played a big role.
Every damaged house became a leak in the water service. They had to shut off water to entire neighbourhoods to prevent water loss.
A plan had to be put in place, created jointly with AE and the local and provincial governments, for how to lift the boil water advisory and how to restore the water system and fire protection in order to bring residents back in to the community.
Everything had to be documented and reported, and that’s easier said than done, especially with complex systems. As they restored the system, they had to deal with inaccurate or outdated drawings, broken and aged infrastructure and water main breaks.
People were working around the clock from multiple organizations, and everyone needed to be coordinated. Where are people sleeping? Where are they eating? How long are their shifts? Have they taken rest?
“We also had to be wary of the emotional toll of people working on our team,” he said. In addition to making sure the workers were getting adequate food and sleep, they hosted barbecues and get-togethers to keep spirits up.
The longest phase is recovery, which is ongoing to this day. That phase is about rebuilding what was there before, or perhaps building something better.
“Build resiliencey into your infrastructure systems in case, God forbid, it happens again,” Vanderzwaag said. At the beginning of the cycle, there’s low complexity but high urgency. During recovery, that flips to high complexity, low urgency. The complexity in recovery stems from organizational issues like permits, budgets, insurance, resources and seasonal constraints.
There are no easy solutions. Waterways was one of the worst-hit neighbourhoods with 90 per cent loss, and it was built on a flood plain so there was discussion about whether they should even be allowed to go back and rebuild.
“They did allow them to return and rebuild in the flood plain, for better or worse,” Vanderzwaag said.
In the end, all the work paid off. On May 3, 2016, the entire city of 88,000 people was evacuated, but by June 1, people started to come home, thanks to the hard work of everyone involved during the repair phase.
“During these types of events, creative minds come together to support the community,” Vanderzwaag said.