Fort McMurray on fire: The beast was moving

On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta and when the wind shifted, residents were forced to leave. That included over a 100 patients at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. Dr. David Matear tells us how they managed to do that and what lessons we can learn.
The Northern Lights Health Facility in Fort McMurray can be seen in this photo as flames shoot into the sky. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The beast was moving in an unpredictable and unorthodox fashion.

That's how Dr. David Matear describes the 2016 fire that engulfed Fort McMurray. 

At the time he was the Senior Operating Director and the Incident Commander for Alberta Health Services, overseeing the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in the city. 

David Matear, Senior Operating Director of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray in 2016
"We had 73 acute care patients that were still in the facility, and 32 long-term care patients which obviously are a challenge in terms of rapid evacuation. Most had mobility issues,' he tells Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat Black Art.

On May 3, 2016, authorities in Edmonton were downplaying the danger from the fires around Fort McMurray, but local sources were saying that the blaze was much closer and more dangerous than the official reports.

Matear realised the longer he waited, the riskier a move would be for his bedridden patients. He made the decision to move the patients out early.

Workers could see plumes of smoke and multiple fires burning through the trees, which surround part of the Fort McMurray's water treatment facility perched on the edge of the Athabasca River. (CBC)

By mid-morning, the roads heading south out of Fort McMurray were closed by the spreading fires. A new plan was quickly hatched: head north into the oil fields where the patients and staff would be airlifted to Edmonton. Staff scrambled to get patients ready, packing their belongings and medications for the journey.

Patients were transported in buses because there weren't ambulances available for the large number that needed to be moved - a challenging task. 

"I helped carry a bed-bound patient onto the bus just before we did the final sweep of the building. Some were wheelchair bound," Dr. Matear says. 

After inspecting the hospital to make sure nobody was left behind, Dr. Matear was the last one out. At the time, it was the largest medical evacuation in Canadian history. A mandatory evacuation order for the entire city of Fort McMurray was issued after everyone was out of the hospital.

Dr. Matear says the crisis management training taken by all medical leaders in his hospital helped them make decisions independently without waiting for the official order to evacuate.  

But he also stresses that the job is not over. Once the community and patients returned, they needed on going care - particularly for their mental health. 

"We had to continue to provide mental health supports to the community over an extended period of time because of the trauma that they'd clearly faced, being displaced, and coming back - some of them without homes. That's still on going... More resource is needed to support the community," Dr. Matear says. 

Dr. Matear is now using what he learned from his experience in Fort McMurray in his new job as the Executive Director Interior Health West with the Interior Health Authority in Kamloops, BC.