His generosity was praised, but not all was well when the Wandering River Lodge opened its doors to people fleeing wildfires

Glen Brooks first learned of the disaster unfolding near Fort McMurray while driving south to Edson after a long shift at the Wandering River Lodge, where he is the acting construction manager.

At that point the lodge was just 200 km from wildfires that would eventually force more than 80,000 people to flee the city as flames ravaged over half a million hectares of land and ultimately destroyed 2,400 structures.

Wanting to pitch in with relief efforts the moment he heard of the devastation striking the Fort McMurray area, Brooks called his superiors and arranged for over 350 evacuees to be admitted to the Wandering River work camp, which sits near Highway 63 about halfway between Fort Mac and Edmonton. It was an act of kindness that eventually proved to be more troublesome than anyone could have imagined.

“Were we the best option?” Brooks asked in a June 9 interview. “Really we were just in the right place at the right time, and were able to meet all those basic survival necessities. We were the only option for a lot of people.”

During the regular oil production season, the camp is home to as many as 808 rig workers, offering warm beds, hot meals — and for evacuees, an attempt at maintaining some normalcy in a time of crisis. It was a roadside oasis, a sudden glimpse of hope and kindness when Mother Nature was showing these people none.

But although the skies seemed to be clearing for the Fort McMurray evacuees under his wing, the road ahead quickly shaped up to be less than picturesque for Brooks, a veteran of the Wandering River operation who was more than familiar with all the house rules his guests were about to start breaking.

Substance use and abuse

The initial challenge, he said, simply came from trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. When you try to enforce rules on people that aren’t familiar with them, the results are apt to vary.

“We had fire alarms going off because people were smoking in their rooms, they didn’t feel like stepping outside,” Brooks recalls, still flustered by the memory. “And the level of drinking was, well, it took us probably the first three or four days before we got a real grip on that.

According to Brooks, this was not an unusual sight to behold during the early days of Fort Mac evacuees’ stay in Wandering River. The camp is not ordinarily accustomed to housing families, children, or pets, but that didn’t stop folks from making themselves feel right at home. Although Brooks was glad to help, scenes like this one, where children are playing right next to active utility lines, gave him plenty of headaches. “It was a little like herding cats — there were kids everywhere, on everything,” said Brooks. Photo courtesy of Glen Brooks“We had to say no public drinking, whatsoever, and even then, anyone who’s found doing that, well here’s another problem: We can’t kick them out! I mean, they’re evacuees, where are they going to go?”

Ordinarily, the Wandering River Lodge operates as what is called a “moist camp” — a place where workers are allowed to indulge in alcohol in their rooms, or smoke outside of them, but are not to engage in any substance use in public spaces like the recreation room, the dining hall, or the boardwalks.

This is to ensure the quality of workers’ performance, to help them keep a clear head and not endanger their own or another’s safety out of sheer folly.

“But with the evacuees coming in,” said Brooks, “it was just sort of like carte blanche. We’re honestly just lucky they didn’t burn a room down.”

Although it may appear to make sense that evacuees could exercise special freedoms as guests of the camp, Brooks explains such an idea posed another quandary — the envy of the remaining on-site workers.

“We had [workers] who would say, ‘Well these people can drink, and smoke, and do this and do that, why can’t we?’ So suddenly there’s this double standard.”

Workers were burdened with the protocol of routine, abiding by the usual regulations, while also feeling infiltrated in their own space.

While Brooks realizes workers are more than capable of exercising control over their own behaviour, he stresses the importance of strict substance use policies in order to keep the camp running smoothly. “Some of [the workers] really are like functioning alcoholics. They may have gotten to bed around two or three in the morning, and they expect to get up early and get through a 12-hour day, and they obviously cannot effectively do that. So really the limits exist for everyone’s safety, to avoid temptation.”

An industrial ecosystem

Brooks also highlights the wild setting and industrial configuration of Wandering River Lodge as posing significant challenges for his guests. Even though, as residents of the Fort McMurray area, most were used to minding the wildlife of their northern landscape, few had ever set foot in an oil workers’ camp before.

“We got a lot of people who just said, ‘Well, what do you mean there’s rules?’” he said. “They’ve never stayed in a camp. You’ve got kids, you’ve got dogs, all sorts of things that just don’t belong in an industrial camp, and you have to have tremendous flexibility to change it all around to accommodate them.”

During the regular oil production season, this recreation room provides a space for rig workers to relax and blow off steam when they aren’t on shift. Brooks saw it as his best option for trying to keep kids “close to the flock.” He reconfigured the room to house kid’s movies, crafts, and even a bouncy castle to keep his charges entertained. Unfortunately, in the process, he forced his camp workers into even more close quarters than they are ordinarily used to, agitating some.
Photo courtesy of Glen Brooks
Officials from Canada North Camps (CNC), operator of the lodge, believed constructing a fence to keep people in and wildlife, like bears and coyotes, out, would take too much time to build to be effective, and cost too much to be practical. Bear spray and air horns were instead made available around the camp.

With active sewer, gas, electric, water, and propane lines crisscrossing between the grid network of conjoined buildings, evacuees had to make sure they were looking out for their children, cleaning up after their pets (who had to be kept on a leash at all times), and making sure their cigarette butts didn’t, ironically, set fire to the place.

“It was a little like herding cats — there were kids everywhere, on everything,” said Brooks. “I think after a while it even started driving the parents nuts. I know it was driving me nuts.”

In an effort to occupy his younger charges, Brooks re-organized the facility’s recreation room, already complete with a pool table, to include crafts, movies and even a bouncy castle. Some of the older kids still elected to remain outside in designated outdoor areas, kicking balls around and enjoying their early vacation from school, but at least this arrangement seemed to lessen the potential for kids hurting themselves on equipment, or encountering wildlife or, what worried Brooks more, interacting with potentially dodgy evacuees.

“If we’re gonna have kids here, let’s keep them close to the flock. Sure you have bears, but you also have to worry about the two-legged predators as well,” he said. “We don’t know the background of a lot of these people, you don’t know what kind of perverts might be here.”

A sample population

It’s easy for Brooks, who was once a member of the Australian Defence Force, to recognize a potential threat when he sees one.

“We managed to keep it under wraps,” he said, “but there were, at one point, a couple bikers [at the camp]. I knew I couldn’t let them off their bikes. I just asked them to leave.”

According to Brooks, communities like Fort McMurray, which rely heavily on a travelling workforce, are prone to economic fluctuations and breed a culture of transience, can usually be described as a textbook “criminal’s paradise” because it’s very easy for someone to disappear and become invisible in such a vibrant and rapidly evolving place.

“Why are there so many police in Fort Mac? It’s because there is a criminal element there that is huge,” he said. Unfortunately, Brooks added, when you pluck a handful of citizens from that sort of scenario and relocate them elsewhere, oftentimes their personalities and problems tend to follow, including criminal tendencies.

Brooks said the two main concerns he’s heard from evacuees have been how long they can stay, and who’s footing the bill. Though evacuees have shown immense gratitude for the aid they’ve received, Brooks knows that no amount of assistance he can give will ease their anxiety. “People want to know what their future is, where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there.” Photo courtesy of Glen Brooks“On the one hand, you’ve got kids, and you’ve got elderly people, you’ve got people in this vulnerable situation, things of that nature. So you’ve got that one element in this society. Meanwhile, these other guys are nothing but trouble, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know they’ll bring that criminal element with them and make things harder for us in this space.”

The camp was already running on a skeleton crew by the time the Fort McMurray crisis escalated. TransCanada, who employed many of the oil field workers staying at the lodge, had decreased production beginning in early April. In fact, Canada North Camps had not even considered opening the camp up to evacuees until Brooks posed the question.

That meant that, should Brooks be willing to oversee opening the camp up, he would be doing so with the knowledge that he might be the only staff member on hand with some level of security training — the only person who knew what had to be done to keep people safe.

Evacuees were instructed upon arrival to report any incidents of malicious or suspicious behaviour to the front desk, which were then further examined by Brooks. He also made regular patrols of the grounds, observing the activities of his charges when he was not otherwise occupied by his regular duties. But for the most part, the wellbeing of evacuees was left largely up to their own common-sense capacity for staying safe.

“[The camp staff] tried to keep a lid on it as best they could, and they weren’t afraid to call the Boyle [RCMP] detachment if they felt things were getting beyond their control,” Brooks said of the role the camp’s three cleaning staff and a pair of kitchen hands played in keeping the chaos to a dull roar. “Having a level of security presence up there may have helped more to mitigate some of the little issues, but for the most part having the police come around there every now and then was enough.”

But the peace and relative quiet was not easily won, according to Brooks, the reason why he felt he had to be vigilant when letting people into the camp in the first place.

“You have to get out in front of a bad situation,” he explains. “You can’t just let it get out of hand and deal with it when it comes to you. Sometimes you actively have to go looking for trouble in order to keep things cool.”

The cost associated

When The Calgary Journal spoke with Brooks on June 9, approximately 130 evacuees remained in Wandering River. On any given day, Brooks estimates 20 people leave, and 15 more come to stay. Some say they will only be there for a day. Others have remained planted since the camp first opened its doors. The possibility of some residential areas of Fort McMurray not being immediately rebuilt due to hazardous levels of asbestos and toxic ash and chemicals in the air remains strong, so what does that mean for Wandering River evacuees who now find themselves with no home to return to?

“Well that’s the question, isn’t it?” said Brooks. “Where’s the crystal ball? We hope they can stay with friends or family, but you’ve definitely got people who don’t have that option. For instance, we had a couple Guatemalan families that are all by themselves in Canada, so where do they go now? Do they get long-term hotel accommodation? Do they rent an apartment in Edmonton until they can get back up north? These are all questions I’ve been asking myself, but nobody seems to have any answers.”

“Were we the best option?” Brooks asked, in a June 9 interview, of the predicament Wandering River staff found themselves in when they took in 350 Fort Mac evacuees to their camp in early May. “Really we were just in the right place at the right time… We were the only option for a lot of people.” Photo courtesy of Glen BrooksCNC has said Wandering River Lodge will remain available to Fort McMurray evacuees until September, leaving a rather small window of time before oil production is back up and running in early- to mid-October. However, warm weather could delay the start of the oil season as much as a month, leaving evacuees more time to stay, or production crews more time to prepare after they leave, Brooks speculates.

Brooks said the two main concerns he’s heard from evacuees throughout the process have been how long they can stay, and who’s footing the bill. Accommodations at the Wandering River Lodge haven’t cost evacuees a dime, with costs paid by TransCanada and CNC until May 30. The federal government picked up the tab starting June 1.

But those constant feelings of concern that Brooks witnessed plaguing evacuees in his camp still bother him, even despite the help aid organizations and volunteers have given in trying to help get these people back on their feet.

It’s why Brooks takes issue with the way the Fort Mac wildfire story has been portrayed in the media — as nothing more than a massive undertaking of faith and goodwill — because unlike the stories written about them, Fort Mac evacuees have yet to see the conclusion of their troubles.

“I understand when these things first come out, you’ve got to give it that feel good spin, something of that nature, that distracts people from the situation,” he said, “but this thing is a lot bigger than that.”

Though Brooks says there is a lot of truth to how generous and giving volunteers and companies like the CNC have been with their time and resources, he feels that material support only answers part of the problem.

“What people did and how they gave was very generous. After a time though, people start to say, ‘Well, we came, we gave, and now we have to go back to work, we’ve got things to do.’”

Meanwhile, “reality sinks back in for [evacuees]. The immediate feeling was ‘Oh good, we’ve got a roof over our head and food in our stomach,’ those basic things and needs were met. But I was just up there last week, and there was a lady who was complaining about the food, and there was another one saying ‘I want to be moved out of this room because it’s too noisy.’”

Though evacuees have shown immense gratitude to Brooks and his small staff for their aid, sending cards and text messages of thanks, he acknowledges that no amount of assistance will ease the remaining fear and uncertainty that overwhelm his campers.

“People are anxious, not knowing if they’ve lost their house, or what exactly they have lost … people are appreciative, but that can’t outweigh their anxiety. People want to know what their future is, where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there.”

mritchie@cjournal.ca