Water for the Firefighters, Water for the Residents


With the city was engulfed in flames, Professional Engineers and operators kept the water flowing to firefighters. Then, when the flames were finally under control, they helped recover the rest of the water system so residents could return home.

It was a hard choice, but for Dawny George, P.Eng., it was the right one. When Fort McMurray was being evacuated, she – like many other municipal officials – sent her family to safety in Edmonton and stayed behind to help in the emergency operations centre.

“As I drove around with my co-worker and looked at the burned trees and houses, we both felt devastated, but hopeful and glad to stay behind to provide support,” says Ms. George, Director of Engineering for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).

In the early days of the crisis, she acted as a liaison between the emergency centre and staff at the city’s water treatment plant. Remaining public works and environmental services personnel – about 16 people, including some whose homes had burned – were working full-out to ensure adequate water pressure and flow for the firefighters battling the flames. They were also supplying first responders with trucked-in water and fuel. Technical support came from engineering consultants across the province, who shared with the RMWB personnel lessons learned from the Slave Lake fires in 2011.

Their most immediate concern was plugging hundreds of leaks across the entire water system to maintain pressure and flow for firefighting. The leaks had spouted in the first couple days of the emergency when over 1,000 buildings burned to the ground.  “All reservoirs throughout the city are connected – one feeds the next – so to fight several fires in the same section of town was challenging with all the leaks,” says Ms. George.

The team decided to tackle repairs in the hard-hit communities of Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Waterways, so they could push more water to firefighters battling blazes in the north and south. “Service connections to destroyed homes were pouring out water, sprinklers were left on in standing homes, and some fire hydrants were left on,” says Michael Colbert, P.Eng., RMWB’s Supervisor of Underground Services.

In most cases, personnel simply needed to turn off the water supply. But in some areas, where losses were too great and extensive repairs required, the municipality decided to isolate water mains.

In the end, the team managed to keep the water supply to firefighters running almost continuously – even when fire surrounded the water plant and it had to be evacuated for several hours. When that happened, the team gained remote access to the plant’s systems. Just like in the movies, they used an iPad.

Having an adequate water supply helped firefighters save 90 per cent of the city – including major infrastructure like the hospital, airport, and city hall. It also helped that the municipality had doubled production capacity at the water plant in 2014, to a maximum of 100 million litres per day. At the peak of firefighting, the plant was pushed to its new limit.

A Duty to Serve, An Engagement Delayed

On a beach at sunset. That was how Travis Kendel, P.Eng., planned to propose to his girlfriend, Stephanie, during a trip to Maui the first week in May. The proposal never happened – at least not on the beach. When Mr. Kendel heard about the wildfires threatening his community, he jumped on the first flight home, returning on May 6 to a changed landscape.

“I was driving into Fort McMurray with flames on the sides of the highway, unescorted, while our first responders were escorting waves of evacuees from north of Fort McMurray, through the city, and to the south,” recalls Mr. Kendel, RMWB’s Development Manager, Environmental Services.

Mr. Kendel joined Ms. George, Mr. Colbert, and other RMWB employees who were working diligently to maintain and restore the city’s strained water supply.

The treatment plant’s ultraviolet water filtration system had gone offline for a short time, compromising the water supply. Dust and debris had also contaminated reservoirs. The result was a boil-water advisory across the region.

Working with Associated Engineering and Alberta Environment, Mr. Kendel led recovery of the water treatment and storage systems.

“That involved some very thorough cleaning and testing of all facilities, as well as compliance reviews by government agencies,” he says. Extra steps were taken to ensure safety, including sampling of drinking water within schools and consulting with water experts at universities across Canada.

It took about six weeks to clean and flush the entire water system, including reservoirs and all treatment and distribution facilities. As far as RMWB is aware, that’s something no other municipality in Canada has ever had to do before.

In June, the boil water advisory was lifted for most areas served by the plant. By mid-August, all boil water advisories were lifted, and all customers served by the plant had access to safe drinking water. Some heavily damaged areas are still impacted, though. Parts of Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Waterways won’t have water service until rebuilding begins.

Besides water treatment, the sanitary and storm water collection systems also needed repairs. With nothing left of many homes except concrete foundations, crews had to dig down and cap water and sewer lines to prevent debris from entering the system and causing backups. As with the other challenges they faced, staff and contractors ensured the worked was done as quickly as possible.

Mr. Colbert, who was initially evacuated, remembers coming back and talking with an employee about his experience. He was covered in dirt and sweat, physically and mentally exhausted – but still ready to get back to work. “That moment solidified what we were there to do: we needed to work hard to get the residents of our city back to their homes,” he says.

Like other front line workers, RMWB staff were happy to rise to the challenge. 

“As engineers, professionals, municipal employees, we have a duty to serve our public. Being able to serve in this context, when our community was in this extreme need, is probably the most rewarding professional experience I’ll ever have the privilege to participate in,” explains Mr. Kendel, who slept on a cot in his office for three weeks. His efforts also included a 2 a.m. drive through smoke and flames so that he and other employees could hand-operate pumps that were supplying water to the front lines.

On behalf of the response team, Mr. Kendel accepted the Governor General’s Commendation for Outstanding Service in June, along with Kevin Scoble, P.Eng., deputy chief administrative officer for the RMWB, and water treatment plant manager Guy Jette.

And Stephanie? She said yes when Mr. Kendel proposed during a 48-hour leave later in May. They plan to stay in Fort McMurray for the long-term.


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