One year after the fires – 4 pipeline safety lessons from Fort McMurray

It’s been one year since the Alberta city of Fort McMurray was ravaged by wildfires. As 80,000 people were evacuated, and about 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed, it was a dramatic and tense time for all involved.

This week we’re reflecting on how Canada’s oil and gas pipeline operators managed to keep a highly flammable product safe in a city on fire.

How pipeline operators responded to the crisis

The fact that there were no instances of oil or gas from pipelines or facilities catching fire during the emergency is a testament to the safety protocols pipeline companies have in place. But of course, there are still lessons from the situation; we spoke with Greg Schmidt, senior director of operations at ATCO Pipelines, to ask what their company experienced during the five days of the blaze.

Greg explained that ATCO is the sole provider of electricity and natural gas to the city of Fort McMurray and some of the surrounding areas.

As the fire gained hold, ATCO Pipelines had control room operators monitoring the situation in order to be ready for necessary action, and valves were cut off to shut down the feed of natural gas into the city as soon as it became prudent.

“One of our gate stations was completely destroyed,” said Greg, adding that the station was closely monitored through the SCADA system at the company’s control room. When the system stopped measuring the station, they knew it was destroyed. 

“Because we had isolated the gas, the situation didn’t get any worse”, he said.

After the fire, ATCO Pipelines had to rebuild the damaged gate station, and conduct several integrity digs to ensure there wasn’t damage to coating or the pipe itself. No ATCO employees were injured.

Photo courtesy of Jason Woodhead –
2016 Fort McMurray wildfire on May 1

What was learned from the crisis

Greg said they validated many existing safety protocols, and gained new insights about pipeline safety during the emergency. For instance, “as a result of what we learned we’re reviewing where we have remote-operated valves versus manual valves,” he explained. At one point, an employee of the upstream pipeline operator, Suncor Energy, had to be flown in to manually switch off a block valve.

Here are four more lessons that came out of the emergency.

#1 Vegetation and brushing programs are a key way to prevent damage.

Fort McMurray is surrounded by boreal forest, so pipeline operators must ensure their above ground facilities are surrounded by non-flammable materials, such as gravel.

“Sites with those features were singed around the edge,” Greg noted, “but sites where trees were closer sustained more damage.”

#2 It pays to be prepared. 

All pipeline companies have comprehensive emergency response plans and they conduct emergency response exercises which help them prepare for a variety of eventualities.

“We also have mutual aid agreements and exercises through CEPA,” said Greg. “Those are typically more focused on spills, but the mutual aid exercises gave us the opportunity to build relationships that served us well during the fires.”

#3 IT support is important.

In the recovery phase, ATCO Pipelines saw the importance of having technology and IT support in the area. “We were fortunate to have the communication infrastructure intact for the whole time,” he stated, “so that was very beneficial.”

#4 Good working relationships with partners make a difference. 

ATCO Pipelines worked closely with Suncor Energy, who supplied the natural gas that fed into the city, and who made the decision to shut off the supply. They also discovered the advantage of working in an industry where collaboration and support are of the utmost importance.

“The great thing about being a CEPA member is we look out for each other during tough times like these,” said Greg concluded by commenting, “I’ve been at ATCO for 28 years and this is by far the most significant event in my career. When you’re shutting off gas to a city of 80,000 people, you don’t take that decision lightly.”

You can read more about the planning and exercises that go into preparing for emergencies in these other blog posts: