'Unsafe' Fort McMurray apartments evacuated

More than 300 people have been evacuated from the seven apartment buildings in Fort McMurray, Alta. after a structural engineer's report found the buildings unsafe.

Tenants were given 10 minutes to get out

More than 300 people have been evacuated from the seven apartment buildings in Fort McMurray, Alta. after a structural engineer's report found the buildings unsafe.

The report, commissioned by the Penhorwood Condominium Association, said parts of the buildings could shift and cause a break in gas line, leading to a fire that would be difficult to control.


Tyran Ault, a spokesperson for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said his office received the report Friday and began evacuating the 168 units shortly before midnight under an emergency order pursuant to the Safety Codes Act.

"We were told around 11 o'clock and then we were able to organize our emergency personnel and start the door-knocking at 11:30 last night," Ault said Saturday.

Tenants of the Penhorwood apartments were given 10 minutes to gather some belongings before they had to leave.

'Pretty traumatic'

Allan Vinni, president of the Penhorwood condominium association, said the evacuation was "pretty traumatic" for many of the residents.

"Some people were angry, some people were upset, some people were afraid, some people were really concerned," Vinni said.

"Those are all valid things to feel when you get rousted our of your home at midnight with no understanding of what's going on or when you can go back."

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo set up an information and reception centre across the street from some of the apartment buildings in a gymnasium at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre on Franklin Ave.

"We're making sure that all residents have proper lodging for however long they may be affected, as well as food services and personal services should they require it," Ault said.

Approximately 190 people registered with the reception centre, but only two required lodging by Saturday afternoon, he said. Most are staying with friends and family and no one spent the night in the gymnasium Friday night.

Ault said it is now up to the property management association to secure a structural engineer to examine the facilities and recommend or oversee necessary changes.

Knew it was coming

Although the evacuation was sudden, Ault said, "it seemed that a lot of people knew this was coming."

"The condo association has been aware of these structural concerns in the past and this report seems to reaffirm those for them," he said.

For the past few years, the condo association has been engaged in a lawsuit with the developer over deficiencies in the buildings.

Vinni, speaking as a member of the condo board, said the board had engaged the services of "a very experienced" professional structural engineer. The engineer told Vinni and others in a conference call on Friday that he was concerned about the immediate structural integrity of the buildings.

"He saw a lot of fresh failures of load-bearing structural pieces, like beams, rim blocks and mash blocks," Vinni said. "He issued a letter in his capacity as a registered engineer that he didn't think it was safe for people to be in that building — in any of those buildings."

The decision to evacuate was made at 4:30 p.m. MT, Vinni said.

A day later, many of the displaced residents are calmer. "They're better today than they were last night," Vinni said Saturday afternoon.

But the upheaval is not over: "We still don't know, to this minute, when anybody will be able to go back in to retrieve any more personal possessions," he said. 

A team of engineers is flying up Sunday morning to determine how to safely let residents back inside to retrieve their belongings.

The Penhorwood apartments are located at Penhorwood Street in the lower townsite of Fort McMurray, Alta.

With files from CBC's Andrea Huncar in Edmonton