They had minutes to escape Fort McMurray wildfire: Workers

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One company contracted to fight the Fort McMurray wildfire says its front-line workers ran for their lives one day — leading to a rare loss of equipment, and a provincial investigation. The provincial government confirms several workers using bulldozers to clear brush and build a fire break on May 16 had to be airlifted out quickly. The crew left two pickup trucks and a trailer behind, which were burned by fire.

Eric Auger and Sons was the company contracted by the province to work there that day. Representatives said they cannot comment formally because of the details of their contract with the province.

But managers said they believed about a dozen of their employees were in “very imminent danger” before they escaped, and two of their trucks were destroyed in the flames. A trailer was also damaged.

The incident comes to light as other contract workers raise questions about their pay. Some 300 firefighters on contract from South Africa did not report to work Wednesday and Thursday, over a wage dispute.

Wildfire manager Chad Morrison said it’s rare to lose equipment in a wildfire, and this is the only loss reported during the Fort McMurray fire.

“They should have been more careful,” he said in an interview The investigation is still underway, but Morrison said he thinks the workers at Tower Road were not following “normal practice.”

“They probably parked their vehicles in the wrong spot,” he said.

The fire break was part of an attempt to keep fire from burning north toward oilsands plants. The crew was part of the effort to hold the fire back at Tower Road, a street that runs east-west near the neighbourhood of Timberlea, at the northern edge of Fort McMurray.

Morrison said conditions were extreme and winds worked against them. The flames jumped Tower Road and roared north.

By the end of that day, Alberta government officials ordered roughly 8,000 oilsands workers to evacuate areas north of the city. The wildfire destroyed an oilsands camp in its path the next morning.

Morrison said he does not think the workers were in imminent danger, and explained advanced firefighters create detailed escape plans and routes. It is common practice for firefighters working a fire to be airlifted in and out of remote forest areas by helicopter.

Both the company and the province said the Tower Road workers received wildfire training before they started this job.

A total of 273 heavy equipment operators were fighting the fire on May 16. All were under contract with the province.

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