Alberta RCMP releases documentary to recognize RCMP efforts during Fort McMurray forest fire

May 3, 2017
Edmonton, Alberta

News release

In May 2016, the Municipality of Wood Buffalo experienced one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history. Forest fires raged, displacing thousands from their homes and their city. May 3, 2017, marks the one year anniversary of this event.

To commemorate and to highlight the heroic efforts displayed by RCMP employees called to duty, the Alberta RCMP has produced a documentary titled, Boots on the Ground: Nature of the Beast. The video captures breathtaking never before seen images and footage of the fire's devastation and the brave men and women who remained on duty to ensure the safety of Fort McMurray citizens.

"I have so much respect for the work that our employees put in during the Wood Buffalo wildfires. They worked tirelessly to ensure the safe evacuation of the residents." said Deputy Commissioner Todd Shean, Commanding Officer of "K" Division. "This documentary showcases the tremendous efforts displayed by RCMP employees during a challenging and complex situation."

The RCMP safely evacuated 88,000 residents out of the city of Fort McMurray and surrounding communities. During the following weeks employees secured the evacuated areas, assisted with the animal rescue mission and continued to escort citizens from camps north of the city. Finally, in early June the RCMP worked with the municipality of Wood Buffalo in a phased re-entry plan. Some residents were returning to their homes, while others were simply going to see what was left.

The rebuild of Fort McMurray will take time. The RCMP is committed to working with all partners to ensure comprehensive public safety during the renewal of the city.

Boots on the Ground: Nature of the Beast - Transcript

The primary police responsibility, during a disaster or emergency situation,is the protection of life.

This is the story of how the RCMP helped protect the lives of the people of Fort McMurray … during the fire and the evacuation … of 2016.

It began as "just another nearby forest fire", on a Sunday in May. As residents of a forest-surrounded community, RCMP members are cognizant of the fire threat. They actually have strategies to deal with such threats - including … the worst case fire scenario that was about to unfold.

Supt. Rob McCloy

Officer in Charge - Wood Buffalo

Approximately a month prior to the fires we actually did our business continuity planning for a disaster if we lost one of our buildings to fire. So our planning was sort of in place. We never thought we'd loose two buildings; they were both standing but the operation of them was lost.

That 'just-another-fire' was soon to become … the beast that would turn Fort McMurray into a ghost town.

Cst. Paul Britton

General Duty - Wood Buffalo

So I came in for my shift and there was so talk that the fires were close. The previous day we had been assigned to watch and make sure that nobody went into a neighborhood that was just south of town.

In a day, that fire more than doubled in size. Then it doubled again in just 3 hours.

It was late afternoon where the fire grew rapidly and dramatically and caught I think a lot of people living in this community by surprise. Flames were really lapping at the side of highway 63.In some cases they jumped the highway making that major thorough fare impassable at some points.

It feasted on the dry forest, the hot weather, the high winds and the low humidity. No firebreaks - not even the mighty Athabasca River - would stop that fire.

Insp. Lorna Dicks

Investigative Services Officer - Wood Buffalo

So on Sunday night recognizing the threats the wildfires were posing, we opened this room and staffed it 24/7. In the event that we had to evacuate people in the middle of the night we'd have those extra resources on hand. Because to call members in the middle of the night and say "hey we need you really quick", there is still lag time, which could have put the public in jeopardy.

Every one of that city's 136 RCMP members could see the fire. And hear it. It sounded like a giant storm rushing towards them — or worse, sneaking up behind them. At times, they'd be so close to the flames, they'd wonder if it might melt their tires or even, their windshield. And the smoke. The smoke was in-escapable.

It'd block out the sun. Turn day into night. Make their eyes water and be so choking … it'd drive them back, into their patrol cars for a breath of its air-conditioned air.

Cst. Andrew Brock

General Duty - Wood Buffalo

So you know those dust storms you see in the Middle East on TV and stuff? We had one of those in Beacon Hill. I couldn't see two feet in front of me. Ash, dust, wind, smoke, whatever other things that fire created, it was like one giant dust storm. Like I said, that entire area was on fire and so was Abasand.

It was a powerful reminder, for all first responders, that they're responsible for the safety of 88 thousand men, women and children. So RCMP members did what they've been trained to do. They put their boots on the ground. They left the fire to the fire fighters and focused on guiding people to safety.

Cst. Andrew Brock

General Duty - Wood Buffalo

So I had to drive in the oncoming lane just to get to the intersection because it was uncontrolled.

Basically my instructions were to stop all lanes of traffic except for those coming out of Beacon Hill. That obviously was a challenge, me being the only person there for probably the first fifteen minutes or so. Directing traffic two lanes North, two lanes South, two turn lanes onto Gregoire Drive plus all the Gregoire traffic and anyone wanting to come into Beacon Hill was a challenge.

Together with some municipal peace officers and a small contingent of Sheriffs, they numbered just over 200. They'd direct traffic. Answer questions. Respond to calls. Encourage evacuation. And urge people to prepare for the worst.

Sgt. Jonathan Baltzer

Forensic Identification Section - Wood Buffalo

Most people were fairly calm when you spoke to them…and if you looked in their eyes, they weren't. Because they knew how bad it was getting. We are standing there, and we tried to wave to as many people as we could, we were waving for people to go this way they would wave back and just keep on going. People just kept coming, it was amazing the cars just never stopped.

They would struggle to keep up with totally unpredictable, fast changing conditions … while they stuffed their patrol cars full of people needing a ride to evacuation centers. They rescued a woman from her home who was confined to a wheelchair — and thank goodness they did: her house would later burn to the ground.

And above all, RCMP members would empathize with their fellow citizens — because, if ever there was a time for a community and its police forces to have each others' backs, this … was … it.

Sgt. Jonathan Baltzer

Forensic Identification Section - Wood Buffalo

I'm a single body in the middle of two and a half lanes and anybody could have gone by me if they wanted to. I'm not going to stand in the way of 3000 lbs. It didn't matter, everybody just put everything on hold and for that period of time they just listened to us without question. We said you need to do this, you need to turn your car this way and you need to go that way and you need to forget what's behind you. Everyone just said "ok."

When the first few neighborhoods were evacuated, residents were frantic. Couples had lost track of each other. Their kids were in schools — unreachable because of traffic jams, road blocks and fire. It was confusing and it was frightening. It was a nightmare.

In such chaos, people need stability, some hope and reassurance. And everyone needs someone they can count on. Someone they can trust in.

Sgt. Jonathan Baltzer

Forensic Identification Section - Wood Buffalo

I think they were looking to us for reassurance that no matter what, it was going to be ok. If we started to panic and they saw that we started to panic, then there was no way that we could reasonably expect them to follow our directions and there was no way that they could have any confidence in what we did, ask or tell them to do. Our job is public safety it is to protect and preserve life, first and foremost. On that day everyone said "we're doing it, we're doing what ever you need, what ever you say we're doing it."<

RCMP members had each other to trust. They reassured each other. And they knew what was needed. So they projected an aura of calm dependability.

Whether they felt that way or not … they were what they are obliged to be: professional. And Fort McMurray's residents would take heart in that.

Insp. Lorna Dicks

Investigative Services Officer - Wood Buffalo

Most of our members were in those pockets that were burning to get those people out. As they were standing there we could hear all the radio chatter, we had radios up here to monitor what was going on and you could hear the intensity in the members voices. "The fires here, we have to go, we don't have time to check every door. They were driving through neighborhoods with the loudspeakers, jumping fences doing door to door knocks as fast as they could. But the fire didn't give us enough time and we had members that were literally within meters of the fire and had to say "we have to go".

It would destroy 2400 homes and buildings. Consume an area the size of Price Edward Island. It'd create its very own climate.

Insp. Mark Hancock

Operations Officer - Wood Buffalo

If Timberlea detachment goes down and we can't work here, where do we go? So we go to the South policing facility, what we didn't plan on if that goes down to where do we go? So then we were like a travelling road show with our emergency operations centre and the fires dictated where we went. Members were jumping into vehicles with other members, they were doing whatever they had to do to get it done. If the road clears, which it did a few hours later then you have to make patrols to Timberlea and such to make sure that if there are any stragglers to get them out and to make sure there isn't any looting or any other issues.

D/Commr. Marianne Ryan

Commanding Officer - K Division

As individuals, as an organization and as a community, we don't always know what we're capable of until we're faced with those monumental challenges. From our Divisional Emergency Operations Centre who were responsible for coordinating all the logistics in terms of scheduling, lodging and food, to our 911 operators who were managing all the distress calls, to our non-uniform employees working behind the scenes, I can say without question our main goal was always public safety.

Doing their duty … was going way above and beyond what many RCMP members had ever experienced before. Most worked 72 hours straight. Some even longer. All RCMP members put in hours that would normally be deemed 'ridiculous' — but they weren't during that week in May, in Fort McMurray. Such hours were the norm, day after day.

Cst. Kyle Green

General Duty - Wood Buffalo

A few officers amongst the highway and myself basically decided that if they were North of this point and South of this point you split them both directions. So we started diverting traffic up North. At the end of the day that pressure was relieved off South traffic and in a couple hours you could actually start to see the back of the pack.

Just about everyone was in line and, though those lines were slow moving, people trusted in the RCMP members and officers guiding the evacuation.

RCMP members stepped in and provided convoy duty. Shepherding 50 vehicles at a time, they led several thousand families through smoke and, at times, a phalanx of fire along the side of the road.

RCMP members, checking for stragglers, watched the destruction while wondering how their own homes — in neighborhoods across the city — were faring. No one knew till later … but 15 RCMP would lose their homes to the fire.

And the remains. They look like the aftermath of an atomic bomb. Or the apocalyptic set of a Hollywood movie. On seeing it for the first time, in person, visitors are often stunned into silence. If that's their experience, what's it like for the family that used to love living here?

It's emergency preparedness and it's the thread that sews together the fabric ... of every uniformed force.

So impressed and appreciative were the residents of the city, they have since feted and paid tribute to the RCMP ... and the other first responders ... in a number of ways - maybe best visually summed up by the murals on this motor coach. It was unveiled at yet another barbecue that said: thank you for taking such good care of all of us … your friends and your neighbors in Fort McMurray.

D/Commr. Marianne Ryan

Commanding Officer - K Division

Well they say that adversity brings out the best in us, and at that particular moment in time when those fires broke out I feel it did bring out the best in all of us. From the moment our Fort McMurray members responded with boots on the ground to the moment that every single employee from across Alberta and Canada returned home safely. Every single one of them displayed leadership, perseverance, dedication and professionalism.

Sgt. Jonathan Baltzer

Forensic Identification Section - Wood Buffalo

Everyone heard the news reports. Everyone called it the beast because it was so out of control because it was so unpredictable. You look at the aftermath of it and it just seemed….fickle. It would pick off two dozen houses and then it would leave three. They would be untouched and then on the other side there would be another two dozen houses gone. But it almost seemed taunting. Anything that is that dangerous to begin with that seems to be able that seems to be able to have mind of its own, to think, to just flaunt its' power almost. Like "I'm going to do this and there is nothing you can do about it." We should have been terrified…….we should have be absolutely terrified. But we had a job to do.

Insp. Lorna Dicks

Investigative Services Officer - Wood Buffalo

Those neighborhoods were evacuated obviously with compete success. We didn't loose anybody which still to this day it brings tears to my eyes. The effort made by those front line members it's absolutely heroic, incredible, amazing and they have my complete respect.

Just under 1,300 RCMP employees from across Alberta and Canada were ultimately involved over the course of 28 days in providing 24/7 policing to the City of Fort McMurray and surrounding area ensuring an orderly and safe evacuation and return of the over 80,000 residents.

Producer: Rene W. Huot

Script: George Roberts

Narration: Paul Boucher

Special thanks to: Cst. Kyle Green, Cst. Andrew Brock, Cst. Paul Britton, Sgt. Jonathan Baltzer, Insp. Mark Hancock, Insp. Lorna Dicks, Supt. Rob McCloy, D/Commr. Marianne Ryan

Additional Photos/Video: Calgary Sun, CTV News, City TV, McLeans, CBC News, Canadian Oil, Sands, RCINET, Metro News, Cheryl Oates/GOA, Michel Chamberland

Very special thanks to all RCMP employees who responded that day and continued to keep Fort McMurray safe until re-entry.

"K" Division Strategic Communications - New Media Unit

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Contact information

"K" Division RCMP
Strategic Communications Unit
780-412-5261

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