By Sarah Dobson
The images were vivid and unreal , showing Fort McMurray, Alta., residents and workers escaping a massive wildfire tearing through the community in May.
For Horizon North Logistics, which operates remote workforce accommodation facilities, the event presented unique challenges that it handily overcame, making the company the winner of the HR Challenge Award.
On May 3, 2016, the company received confirmation of changing wind patterns that were pushing the fire directly towards Fort McMurray, triggering a full evacuation of the roughly 80,000 residents. That’s when Horizon North stepped up, offering displaced residents, along with their pets, and emergency personnel a place to stay at its Blacksand Executive Lodge.
The 665-room lodge, located 30 km north of Fort McMurray, was one of the first lodges Horizon had in that style, says Jeff Litchfield, vice-president of operations at Horizon North, “which was very, very high-end, really well-appointed, luxurious looking.”
When the severity of the situation became apparent, Blacksand let people know its accommodations were available for people heading north out of town.
“They put it out across the emergency broadcast, and then it went to the various other radio stations,” he says.
The lodge — along with additional facilities on the property — ended up providing about 1,250 evacuees a place to stay, says Litchfield.
“I don’t think we ever turned anybody away. We were getting a little close to stacking people up (to share rooms)... Most of the time, our staff were voluntarily giving up their rooms and making space so we had a few staff who were sleeping on couches but, other than that, I think everybody got a room.”
As for employees, it’s hard to prepare for what you don’t expect, he says.
“We never expected to be housing snakes and various pets in our facility. We ended up setting aside a full dorm that was kind of the pet facility,” says Litchfield. “Our staff are well-prepared just as a matter of business for large spikes in guests, so that in itself is not a tremendous challenge for staff… our chef is very good at being able to scale up his meal plans to accommodate a significant number of people.”
Fortunately, most of the staff lived outside of Fort McMurray, so they weren’t too traumatized by the blaze.
“Also, the rush of the emergency kind of led a lot of endorphins to carry people through. Certainly, everyone was working long, long days and working really, really hard, and most of the feedback I got from folks was just how great a feeling it was, because it is kind of gratifying to help,” he says.
“Post-emergency is when the emotions start to wind down and all the adrenaline starts to wind down and you have to deal with the situation, that was probably a little more problematic for them, but by that point in time, we had them off-site and back at home with their families and we had access to a variety of different HR tools like a counselling service.”
However, the ordeal was not over yet. With the winds shifting, the lodge itself came under an evacuation order so Horizon North — which has anywhere from 1,200 to 2,300 employees, depending on the season and economy — initiated its emergency response plan and ensured everyone was evacuated safely and accounted for.
“We were in constant communication both with (the Regional Muncipality of) Wood Buffalo and the town as well as our different sites that are geographically in similar situations, and so good communication circles with those groups kept us apprised of where the fire was,” says Litchfield.
The evacuation went well, he says, as another Horizon North facility had had to be evacuated earlier.
“We came to realize in the first evacuation, in an emergency, helpful isn’t always helpful. When you’ve got a site with a single line of communication that is being inundated by 20 or 30 ‘helpful’ people calling, that creates some challenges. So we established a chain of command with an incident commander overseeing the entire Fort McMuray situation — and that was myself and that was in Edmonton — and then each site had a dedicated site commander that would be the communication channel.”
The company also had full listings of all staff and guests staying at its accommodations, along with a pre-determined plan around the different vehicles and routes for staff leaving.
“There was never even the slightest risk to any staff,” he says.
A few days later, the company was given the all clear to restart operations at Blacksand so it began prepping for the emergency crews and energy sector clients who needed accommodations.
But on May 16, the lodge again faced a mandatory evacuation order after gusting winds and high temperatures caused the wildfire to jump fire breaks and move in its direction. Once again, Horizon North safely evacuated the lodge.
“We evacuated midday and the fire approached the site or was nearing around midnight, so six, seven hours later ,” says Litchfield.
Unfortunately, this time, the fire won — the flagship facility was destroyed.
“In hindsight, we may or may have not been able to defend that site with people, but we couldn’t in good conscience put them at risk, it was too uncertain, it was moving too fast,” says Litchfield.
“That type of fire is so uncommon, we likely won’t see another like that in our lifetime, so the question is what do you prepare for reasonably and that’s what we’ve kicked around. We have made lots of adjustments, but mostly around securing our people. If we lose an asset once in 50 years, that’s not the end of the world, as long as our people are secure, that’s more critical than an occasional asset.”
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