A year of mental health challenges after the Fort McMurray wildfire

One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, Alberta oilsands companies are still working to improve the mental health of workers and their families.

Companies helping employees, families through emotional, traumatic experience

Mel Angelstad, a firefighter for Suncor Energy, says the Fort McMurray wildfire was emotionally tough. 'Every single friend that you had had either a friend or family member lose their house and all their memories that went with it.' (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Nearly a year later, and Mel Angelstad still has vivid memories of the flames storming towards Fort McMurray, Alta., and tearing through the community.

"The fire rolling on top of the trees at us on the very first day, the very first call — that's something you won't forget soon," said Angelstad, a firefighter for Suncor Energy. "It's hard to explain without thinking it's out of a movie scene. It's a very fast-moving fire that's coming right at you." 

It's a very fast-moving fire that's coming right at you.- Mel Angelstad , Suncor firefighter

Angelstad is not one to be unnerved easily. He was a tough-guy hockey enforcer known as The Mangler when he played in the minor leagues and even in the NHL.

But even professionals trained to face tough, unpredictable challenges found the scale of the destruction too much.

Angelstad says he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

"[It was] hitting critical limits of what you can see in a day," he told CBC News in an interview last month.

Angelstad said many of his oilsands colleagues needed counselling and other services in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. 

Suncor said it experienced a spike in the number of workers accessing its employee wellness program.

Twelve months later, the company says requests for mental health services have returned to normal levels, however that doesn't mean everyone has healed. Oilsands companies are not only responding to the struggles of employees, but their families too.

Long hours, high stress

Sal Fares gets emotional as he recounts his experience helping to organize flights for evacuees from Fort McMurray who fled to Shell's Albian Sands mine north of the city. At the time, Fares's wife was pregnant with their third child and due in four weeks.

"I haven't really shared much about these experiences with a lot of people," said Fares, who works as a human resources manager for Shell. "Emotionally, it was one of the most draining weeks I've had. That night, you're seeing people at their worst moment, when they've lost everything and you can't do much." 

Operations are back to normal at the large oilsands mine, but Fares's department is still dealing with the aftermath of the disaster and its effect on people in the region.

"There're some people that we are relocating out or people who aren't coming back. So you're just dealing with people making life decisions," he said.

The situation at Suncor's Firebag oilsands site was also tense as evacuees poured in.

"It was busy. People were scared," said Jeff Eichenlaub, who is part of the Firebag operations team.  "We had to work fairly quickly to start separating people and order supplies. People kept coming and coming."

"At first it was hard not to be emotional — we were hurting too." 

Helping employees

When evacuees showed up at oilsands facilities, some were showing signs of heat stroke after spending all day driving up the congested Highway 63. Jen Reid remembers that awful 11-hour drive with her two black Labrador retrievers and three cats in her truck for the 95 kilometre journey.

After catching some sleep at the Albian Sands camp, she volunteered at the registration desk as evacuees kept pouring in. Her state of mind was fragile, so she was tasked with giving people hugs. She could only do it a few hours at a time.

"I couldn't manage more than that ... but I needed to do something to feel normal," said Reid, a Shell maintenance co-ordinator. "I think it meant a lot to people, I really do." 

Oilsands workers not only faced uncertainty about their homes and families, but also about their jobs. Several oilsands plants shut down because of the fire threat, like Syncrude's Mildred Lake mine. The site was completely evacuated and no one knew when it would restart.

Days after the evacuation about 1,000 Syncrude employees filled a conference room in Edmonton, where company vice-president Greg Fuhr said workers were told they wouldn't lose their jobs and everyone was going to be paid throughout the disaster.

"When that was announced in that room, you could just feel the tension leave the room. That's what they needed," said Fuhr. "They could now focus on what was important — taking care of their families who had been displaced."

Fuhr says the announcement provided stability for the people and, in turn, helped employees focus on plans to restart the oilsands plant. 

New school program

In the last twelve months since the disaster, oilsands companies have also done a lot to help alleviate any ongoing mental health woes experienced by people in the broader community as well.

Imperial Oil, for instance, donated $30,000 to the local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association to purchase 180 "Heart Math" kits for Grade 5 and 6 students in Fort McMurray. The program helps kids monitor their anxiety and change their breathing habits to help them relax. 
Grade 5 and 6 students take part in a pilot project to monitor their anxiety levels following the Fort McMurray wildfire. (Supplied by Imperial Oil)

"It was a traumatic experience for a lot of people ... mental health is a challenge in society today," said John Whelan, a senior vice-president with Imperial Oil.

"It affects everybody."


Kyle Bakx


Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.


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