Fort McMurray, AB – On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, 434 kilometers northwest of Edmonton. On May 3, it swept through the community, destroying 2,400 homes and buildings. At least 50 of them were owned or rented by members of IAM Local Lodges 99 and 1722. It prompted the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history. More than 88,000 residents of Fort McMurray were moved.
More than 600 IAM members, 300 of them permanent residents and the remainder who commute on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to jobs, have been impacted. These members work for companies such as Finning International, Kal Tire, Strongco Equipment and Leavitt Machinery, overhauling, repairing and maintaining the heavy equipment used in the production of oil. A quarter of Canada’s oil production – one million barrels of oil a day – comes from the oil sands projects surrounding Fort McMurray.
People were uprooted from their homes, some of them twice. All of their belongings have been lost, their homes destroyed, their vehicles incinerated. Once they were evacuated, many found refuge with friends, family and fellow workers while many others were taken in by complete strangers – it’s the Canadian thing to do.
The response by IAM members in this time of need was quick and heart-warming. “The generosity and support I have witnessed since assuming the role of Disaster Relief Committee Coordinator has been mind-blowing to say the least,” explained IAM Local Lodge 99 Recording Secretary Shawn Plouffe. “I have received emails from members who have lost everything and they’re asking what they can do to help others that have less resources. This is truly what unions are all about.”
“Our membership has been outstanding with their support, both financial and morally, for their brothers and sisters in Fort McMurray,” said IAM District Lodge 14 Directing Business Representative Bob McKinnon. “There was no hesitation. Our Fort McMurray members needed help and the rest of the membership reacted with clothing, food, accommodation and money, you name it. And they will continue to do so until their needs are met.”
David Hyde, a volunteer fireman and Heavy Duty Mechanic at Finning International and a Local Lodge 99 member, put up two neighbours with their camper trailers in his driveway in Saprae Creek after the fire began. They’re still there! Duane Brooks, a heavy equipment technician and LL 99 member, retired two weeks prior to the fire. Within two days of the fire beginning, he was in nearby Lac LaBiche setting up generator sets and trailers for evacuees, so they had power and a place to stay. Everywhere you looked, members of LL99 and 1722 were stepping up to the plate.
The IAM Grand Lodge donated $50,000 toward the IAM District Lodge Disaster Emergency/Disaster Relief Fund and IAM Local Lodge 99 matched that amount. Across the country, the donations have been coming in, The Quebec Machinists Council donated $2,500, the Ontario Provincial Council of Machinists raised more than $1,200 at its recent convention and IAM Local Lodge 2921, Toronto Pearson airport screeners, set the bar, raising $7,000 through bake sales at Terminals One and Three. Their employer, Garda Canada, matched that amount for a total donation of $14,000. It’s safe to say that Machinists have big hearts and deep pockets in Alberta’s time of need.
In early June, residents lucky enough to have homes to return to were allowed to come back, but for thousands of others, their fate remains unknown. For some it was too painful to relive but five IAM members agreed to talk about their ordeal. These are their stories.
“I was working on a truck in my garage and when I looked outside my street was red. I couldn’t believe it,” explained IAM Local Lodge 99 member Shane Ganong. He lived in the Waterways subdivision, at the bottom of the hill leading into town. “The top of the hill was covered with a thick wall of black smoke. The fires behind it were red and orange and cast a red glow over everything. The fire started moving down the hill toward me so I knew I didn’t have much time.”
Shane didn’t have to worry about his wife and two daughters, they were visiting out of town. But he had to act fast. “I grabbed a garbage bag, filled it with some clothes, our passports and an envelope filled with money (from the recent sale of a truck)” and left his home to its fate.
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David Hyde had already put in 80 hours as a roving heavy-duty mechanic for Finning International by May 3 when duty called. Hyde is a volunteer fireman with the Saprae Creek Fire Department.
“I lost a shed but saved my house by placing sprinklers on the roof. But 30% of the homes in this community were not so lucky,” explained Hyde. The fire, fueled by winds of 72 km. (45 miles) per hour, consumed three km. of territory an hour. “The heat and the flames were intense and the wind kept changing,” explained Hyde. “You would get one area under control and the fire pushed by the wind would actually leap over to another building or across the street, I’ve never fought one like this before.”
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By May 6, the fire had destroyed 12 structures in the hamlet of Anzac, 36 km. (22 miles) southeast of Fort McMurray.In the Abasand subdivision, 50% of the homes were destroyed, 70% in the Beacon Hill. North Parsons lost an unfinished school. In Saprae Creek 30% of the homes were destroyed. Wood Buffalo lost 30 homes, Waterways 90% of its homes and Stone Creek (still rated an active fire zone) 70 homes.
For Kyle Hepditch, a 26- year-old heavy duty mechanic with Levitt Machinery, married with a six month-old infant, the fire had a double impact. The house he was renting was totally consumed by the fire that took all of their belongings. The second blow came when his employer refused to bring him back to Fort McMurray. Levitt Machinery gave him a job in Edmonton, where he is now renting a house but at a lower rate of pay. (Edmonton pay scales for Heavy Duty Mechanics are lower than Fort McMurray). “It’s hard enough losing all of your belongings but now they refuse to send me back to Fort McMurray and have even posted my old job!”
Like Hepditch, Lorne Park is also an IAM member and a resident of Beacon Hill, the subdivision adjacent to Highway 63, the only access in and out of Fort McMurray. Lorne’s house survived but he can’t move back in.
“The land surrounding my house is still too toxic from all of the contaminants that burned during the fire,” he explained. “The best guess as to when we can return is September, if at all. Nobody seems to know for sure.”
Lorne has a young son who suffers from autism and his wellbeing is a chief concern of Lorne and his wife. “We were fortunate to find a house to rent that has a similar layout so he really doesn’t recognize what has happened to his routine.” Beacon Hill lost 70% of its homes and there are fears that the entire subdivision may have to be levelled.
Paul Mandryk owns a home in Edmonton and rents in Fort McMurray, where he works for Finning International. Like many of his fellow Local Lodge 99 members, he works staggered shifts, often two weeks on and two weeks off. The fire destroyed his apartment building. “It took everything I had in Fort McMurray, clothing, furniture and other personal things.”
“I was one of the lucky ones. My house is fine.”
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The initial insurance payouts are estimated as high as $9 billion CDN if the entire community has to be rebuilt. A further estimate based on current damage pegs the insurance payouts at $2.6 to 4.7 billion CDN and the cost of lost oil production to the Alberta economy is $70 million per day. In total it’s pegged as high as $1 billion CDN. Members affected by the wildfire are encouraged to apply for assistance through the fund at either Local Lodge 99 or District Lodge 14. You may qualify for up to $500 in relief funds but you won’t know unless you apply.