Turn It Off, Turn It On | APEGA

Turn It Off, Turn It On

Fort McMurray’s natural gas and electrical utilities suffered major blows in the wake of the wildfires. Professional Engineers with ATCO were at the centre of efforts to protect and restore these essential services in the community.

As the wildfire advanced towards Fort McMurray, officials with ATCO closely monitored its progress. The company is responsible for two essential services in the community: natural gas and electricity distribution.

Some officials, like Nathan Carter, P.Eng., had helped with recovery efforts after the Slave Lake wildfire in 2011. They remembered how quickly the flames had spread into the town, destroying a third of the community.

“Given the commodity that we move, fire is always of particular interest to us. Our spidey-senses were tingling,” says Mr. Carter, Vice-President of ATCO Gas Edmonton Region Operations. “We’ve run into wildfires before – they’ve just never hit up against a major industrial city before.”

Still, no one could have predicted what was to come. One of the largest evacuations in Canadian history was about to unfold and ATCO employees – including dozens of Professional Engineers – were soon at the centre of the response and recovery efforts.  

All Fired Up

On May 3 – the day Fort McMurray was fully evacuated – many of ATCO’s senior leaders were gathered in Edmonton for an annual general meeting. Fort McMurray soon landed their agenda.

As the crisis escalated, ATCO’s emergency response plan was activated. Non-essential employees in Fort McMurray were asked to evacuate the city with their families. And with parts of the community going up in flames, the company decided to shut off the natural gas supply to all 20,000 customers in the region as a precaution.

But shutting off natural gas to an entire city isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. It required a coordinated response with Suncor Energy, which owns the high-pressure pipeline that carries natural gas into the community.

“Suncor was able to remotely close one valve north of town, at Mile 17,” explains Mr. Carter. Another remote valve, tucked in the forest south of the city at Mile 27, had to be shut off on site. “They actually had to fly somebody in by helicopter to shut the valve and then pluck the person out afterwards,” he says.

A small contingent of ATCO leaders flew into Fort McMurray that night to provide support at provincial and regional emergency operation centres.

One of them was Ryan Germaine, P.Eng., ATCO Gas Senior Director of District Operations, whose coverage area includes Fort McMurray. He spent most of the night getting up to speed on what was happening. He managed to grab a quick nap at the ATCO office, sleeping on a concrete floor. “I crawled inside some guy’s coveralls as my blanket,” he recalls with a laugh.

He didn’t know it yet, but Fort McMurray would be his home for the next three weeks.


Around 6 a.m. the next morning, Mr. Germaine and other ATCO employees headed out to tour the city, trying to get a handle on the steps required to restore the natural gas network.  

It was cool and calm outside. The Beast was resting.

“It was somewhat apocalyptic with sunlight barely filtering through the smoke. No one was around – vehicles were abandoned, scattered on the roads and ditches,” he says. 

Travelling into the worst-hit neighbourhoods, the ATCO contingent discovered that a major gate station for the city was destroyed and another was damaged. It is at gate stations that the flow of high pressure gas is reduced so it can be distributed into homes.

Later that day, the fire flared up again. Even those working in the regional emergency operations centre were forced to flee the city. The situation on the ground was dynamic, and even that’s an understatement.

“For the first three days, we were simply responding to the ever-changing and active fire. As the fire moved outside of town, we had to respond to isolate additional natural gas infrastructure in communities south of Fort McMurray,” says Mr. Germaine.

Smaller communities like Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation, and Gregoire Lake Estates were also evacuated.

Mr. Germaine stayed in close communication with Mr. Carter in Edmonton, who was responsible for coordinating overall recovery efforts for gas distribution and transmission, and Mike Shaw, P.Eng., the Calgary Region Operations Vice President and the persons responsible for sending in the right resources – people and equipment – to support ATCO’s natural gas recovery efforts.

By Day 4, the situation had stabilized enough to send in a small team of about 40 employees to start assessing damage to the gas distribution system and how to fix it. All stations across the city had to be checked. Inspections and integrity digs were conducted to make sure that plastic underground pipes were still safe to use. To be safe, crews also visited every house in the city to do visual assessments.

That work took about a week to finish.

It also took a week to confirm that Suncor’s high pressure gas line was safe to turn back on. Adding to the challenge: no one knew when residents would be allowed to return. Would it be three days, or three weeks?

“As a company, we didn’t want to delay recovery or safe re-entry for residents,” says Mr. Germaine.

It would take a team of engineers, technicians, and other staff to tackle a seemingly overwhelming task: the biggest natural gas restoration project ATCO had ever undertaken.

The Purge

ATCO typically brings about 20,000 new gas customers online every year. In Fort McMurray, 20,000 homes and businesses needed to be brought back online ASAP.

Before service could be restored, gas lines needed to be purged to ensure there was no air in the system. To purge a system, gas is flowed through the pipelines to push out the air. This is done at various end points in the system, usually at homes or gate stations. Service valves had to be shut off at all homes and businesses.

ATCO suspected there would be mostly gas in the pipes with only a small amount of air. “What we found was a lot of air and a little bit of gas. Which meant the entire system had to be purged,” says Mr. Carter.

But crews couldn’t just start opening valves.

A team of Professional Engineers from within the company was called upon to create a set of procedures to guide the project in a safe and coordinated manner. They were tasked with finding the most effective purge points and determining how long each purge should last. After crunching the numbers, they identified upwards of 1,500 purge points across the city.

“We had a small army of dedicated engineers in Edmonton working on these plans, which took them quite a number of days. Early on, they worked through the night to get the first ones completed, so we could begin,” says Mr. Germaine.

Crews on the ground – about 150 people in field operations – were also working non-stop to execute the plans. Initially, the company expected the project would take several weeks. They got it done in 10 days.

Engineering teams also designed alterations to the city’s natural gas system to isolate heavily impacted neighbourhoods, so the company could bring service back to all remaining customers.

By May 17 – just two weeks after the mass evacuation – natural gas service had been restored to about 50 per cent of the city. By June 1, service was restored to all customers allowed to return as part of a phased re-entry plan.

But there were more hurdles. When people began returning, ATCO Gas employees had to visit homes and stores to turn gas valves back on, complete safety inspections, and relight appliances.

After the Slave Lake fire, the company did 2,400 relights over a few weeks. In Fort McMurray, staff did 20,000, including 3,200 in one day.

And that major gate station that burned down? It was rebuilt in four months.

“There were a lot of firsts for us as an organization,” says Mr. Carter. “We’d give the team what would seem like a fairly impossible target, and they kept meeting or exceeding it.”

Members of that team included ATCO Electric employees faced with a separate daunting challenge: keeping power flowing to support critical emergency services.

Power to the Protectors

Gurb Hari, P.Eng., visited Fort McMurray plenty of times before the fire, having spent five years supporting electric projects in the community. But he wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived from Edmonton to support emergency operations.

“The experience was surreal,” says Mr. Hari, Supervising Engineer for ATCO Electric’s Northeast Region. “To see the city completely empty felt like a scene from a movie. Air quality was poor especially early on, so not only was the city empty but everyone outside was wearing a ventilation mask.”

He ended up spending most of May in Fort McMurray, working with other key stakeholders to identify critical sites requiring electrical service.

While ATCO turned off the natural gas during the crisis, electricity was left on – when safe – to provide power for critical infrastructure needed to battle the fires. This included the emergency centre, fire halls, water lift stations, reservoirs, and pumping stations, as well as the cell and radio towers that allowed first responders to communicate. In some cases, this meant restoring damaged structures while the city was still threatened by fire.

More than 30 critical loads in the community and surrounding areas were identified. “Priorities were set to attempt to maintain electrical service to these locations as best we could,” explains Paul Goguen, P.Eng., Senior Vice President and General Manager for ATCO Electric’s transmission and distribution divisions.

Of course, the shifting fire had its own plans. Flames ending up damaging 50 kilometres of power lines and 560 poles. In total, nearly 1,000 assets needed to be repaired or replaced.

The fluidity of the situation forced everyone to be quick on their toes. “We had to plan and strategize while the emergency was happening,” says Mr. Hari. “Engineers need to be critical thinkers, and that was how we approached this event. Honestly, being in the emergency operations centre felt like being in an exam every day, all day.”

The pressure was often intense.

“Something is always hitting you, some new request or issue, and you have to deal with it – and be sure about what you’re doing. Your decisions, or your recommendations, could impact hundreds of people.”

Going With the Flow

While some parts of the city with underground powerlines only lost electricity for a couple of hours, others areas weren’t so lucky.

Just west of the city, two major electrical transmission lines span 1,400 metres across the Athabasca River. They’re important feeders for northeastern Alberta. Fire tore through the area, burning down poles on the north side of the river and causing significant damage on the south. Repairing the remote site was one of the team’s biggest challenges.

Electricity was still flowing, though at one point the line had to be de-energized so fire crews could spray retardant over the growing blaze, says Mr. Goguen, who oversaw the electricity crisis management team.

“Because of how active the fire was and the fact that the fire came back through the area a couple of times, it took several attempts by helicopter and by ground to get a full understanding of how much damage was done to our infrastructure,” he says.

To get to the site, crews had to traverse creeks and coulees for about eight kilometres. Then they had to build several temporary bridges across the Horse River for trucks and equipment. It took 10 days and several thousand access mats before crews could start repairs.

“One pole of the 14- kilovolt line was so badly damaged crews used the boom of a digger truck to keep it propped up for several days,” says Mr. Goguen. “We knew we needed to keep the power flowing as this was a critical line feeding the Parson’s Creek substation.” At the time, Parson’s Creek was providing electricity to most of the city, since fire had damaged the two other substations that feed the city.

It took almost 30 days to complete the work at the Athabasca River crossing.

Crews were also working on other repairs in and around Fort McMurray. Electricity was restored to 90 per cent of the community by the third week of May. By early June, all damaged and destroyed poles had been repaired or replaced. When residents began returning, the lights were on in all parts of the city that were safe to inhabit.

One of the biggest jobs throughout the crisis was managing risk.

“We had to always be evaluating contingencies, watching for possible scenarios and preparing for the potential loss of a critical piece of infrastructure,” says Mr. Goguen. For example, electricity was maintained to industrial sites in and around Fort McMurray, but plans were in place to allow for controlled shutdowns if needed.

ATCO also worked closely with the Alberta Electric System Operator to ensure the fire didn’t impact the stability and reliability of the electrical grid in the northeast part of the province. 

That's The Spirit

In all, more than 650 ATCO employees from its natural gas, electricity, and structures and logistics groups travelled to Fort McMurray to help during the crisis.

“They came from all over the province. They were tired and sleeping at camps. Some had lost their homes. But there they were, pulling together, making sure the lights stayed on and our people were safe,” says Mr. Goguen.

Countless others provided support from Edmonton, Calgary, and other communities. “I would describe it as a fierce determination to prevail and rebuild,” says Mr. Carter.