Fort McMurray wildfires highlight our fragile infrastructure

May 11, 2016 | Hot Topics

The news coming out of Alberta, the center of Canada’s oil sands production, is horrible. A entire town of nearly 90,000 evacuated as wildfires threaten homes, businesses and the fragile Arctic tundra that surrounds the city. The fires are still going, although as I write this on Wednesday 11 May, there’s hope that weather changes will cause a slowdown in the fire’s spread — but it’s still expected to burn for a time before it can be considered under control. Today’s headline says that all of the town’s schools were saved; on the flip side, about 10% of the town’s structures were destroyed. Our thoughts are, of course, with those displaced and hoping to get home soon.

These fires have a human-scale cost, but also point out how fragile our infrastructure is. 90,000 people evacuating all at once created chaos on roads leading out of the city, as would probably be the case anywhere. Roads are designed to carry daily traffic, with some added capacity for holiday or other special events, but 90,000 people at once? Taking as many possessions as they can carry? No.

This is where simulation, engineering, and human behavior intersect. Evacuees are panicked and rushed; not thinking clearly or driving safely. How can planners match the need to dynamically route vehicles during an evacuation, monitoring the situation as it unfolds in real-time in the roadways to match demand and capacity? I don’t know how many roads there are out of Fort McMurray, but one can leave Boston to the North, South and West by car and to the East by boat. Something like 10 years ago, a logging truck hit an upright steel member on one of the major arteries in and out of Boston, the roadway above was declared unsafe and we had horrible gridlock for weeks. Not at all like escaping from danger, but still annoying. Wasted time, wasted gas, frayed tempers …

Sorry. That still brings up bad memories of hours and hours stuck in traffic. Back to how we can fix this.

If roadways are monitored, as is now possible in a way that really wasn’t 10 years ago, we can capture and use that data in real time and to plan for the worst. Tie live data into intelligent models of the infrastructure, and you can start to make better use of those assets. If you know 90,000 people are being evacuated, and that there are 4 possible route choices, some vehicles can be funneled to the West, others to the South, and so on — directed to whatever is safe and, at that moment, projected to be underutilized when those vehicles get to that location. To do this, we need cameras (or other sensors) to monitor traffic as well as accurate models of the roadways –no point sending cars down a closed street– just what the Internet of Things is intended to help us with. This is big data of the BIG kind, and it’s got no room for failure.

Fort McMurray is an oil town that was apparently a sleepy place until oil sands became economically viable in the 1960s and really took off in the 1970s. It’s been up and down since then, as the price of oil has periodically been lower than the cost of extracting hydrocarbons from oil sands. The slump in 2014/2015/2016 already slowed production in Alberta, but this fire has massively stalled it. Hydrocarbon Processing, an oil industry magazine, says that about “half of the nation’s oil sands capacity remained shut as energy firms kept facilities closed as a precaution”. The magazine says this is “1 MMbbl of capacity [that is] offline” as 11 production companies and 3 pipeline companies cut operations. One million barrels per day of lost production is a heck of a lot and means that some producers may not be able to meet commitments on outstanding contracts for the near-term.

But the oil is still there in those sands, and production will need to start up once the fire danger is past and workers have returned to the fields. First, there will be a damage assessment: what can be restarted without major repairs? Even facilities and pipelines that aren’t damaged will take weeks to restart and get up to nameplate production. This morning, a Reuters article says that Shell and Suncor, in areas affected by smoke rather than fire, were planning to restart production at reduced rates with Shell, at least, using staff that would be flown in.

Remote monitoring of oil and gas facilities has been going on for a long time, and will be key in these restarts since the plants will have to operate with minimal staffing until Fort McMurray is itself back up and running again. But other types of remote sensing can help get things back to normal: Oil sands exploitation is basically mining, not drilling like you may be used to. Clearing trees and digging pits changes the arboreal ecosystem and the tailings (material dug out of the ground and piled up, somewhere out of the way) are processed in ponds to reclaim every possible thing of value. The Province of Alberta had been monitoring environmental changes caused by the oil sands operations and, while we don’t know how many of those sensors are still viable, can use this data to help remediate the devastated area.

Getting people home, getting them back to work and trying to salvage what can be is going to take weeks. From everything I’ve heard and read, the authorities did an awesome job getting and keeping people safe, and protecting those structures that they could. Today’s technologies enable us to be so much better prepared, by gathering data and running scenarios, that we can “game” almost every eventuality. We do, however, need the public will to spend on these sensors and data gathering/analysis technologies — and then the skill to create, run and interpret the scenarios.


If you’re thinking of helping those displaced by the fire, authorities have asked that we donate via the Red Cross or other charities that are helping with emergency relief and in the rebuilding to come.

The image is of a Suncor oil sand open pit mine, clearly on a day where there was no smoke or fire. Image courtesy of Suncor.