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Wildfires rage in Canada

By Connie Lannan

June 18, 2023

All Choice Rentals11:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4, 2023. It is the time and date that will be forever etched in the memory of Blake Menning, vice president, All Choice Rentals, which has its headquarters in Drayton Valley, Alberta, Canada.  

That is when he and the others in his community of nearly 10,000 residents received the alarming alert on their phones that they were on a 30-minute evacuation notice. A nearby wildfire was headed their way.  

“We were all in bed. The notice said to pack your stuff, be prepared to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice and expect to be away for up to 72 hours,” Menning says.  

As soon as Menning received the notice, he contacted his business partner, All Choice Rentals President Michael Doerksen. “We immediately created a communication chain — a group text with all 37 employees in Drayton Valley — asking them to let us know whether they received this and that they needed to prepare to evacuate. We asked when they got outside of Drayton Valley to check in so we knew they were safe,” Menning says.  

About 20 minutes later, Menning and the rest of the Drayton Valley residents received the alert that the time to leave was now. “I have two young boys and a wife. You are told to pack up your belongings, but you don’t know what to grab. My wife packed our clothes. I packed up some important documents and the kids’ bicycles, scooters and goalie equipment and headed out of town. All major highways to and from Drayton Valley were closed except for one, due to the wildfires. We were told to head to Edmonton, about 1½ hours’ drive away, but with all the backed-up traffic, it took people more than four hours to get there.” 

Canadian wildfiresMenning and his family weren’t stuck in the traffic jam too long as they stopped at his father’s house, which was right outside the evacuation area. He and his family spent the night there. The next morning, Menning headed back into town to speak with the authorities to see how he could assist as he had a lot of knowledge and equipment that could help in this situation.  

“We are a full-service rental company with five locations — Drayton Valley, Hinton, Rocky Mountain House, Sundre and Olds — all in Alberta, with Drayton Valley being our headquarters. We are unique in our rental offering. We do general construction rentals, but also have specialized divisions that provide portable toilets/handwash/towable lavatories/shower trailers/septic tanks as well as a large waste management division. We are a true one-stop shop,” he says. 

The first task was setting up a command center at a local shopping mall. Equipment was needed for that property and to be closer to the fire lines. Menning knew he couldn’t bring in all this equipment by himself, so he had the difficult task of calling his district manager, who lived just outside the evacuation zone and then five of his professional drivers to see whether they could assist.  

“I first called Morgan Feniak, my district manager, and asked if he would be willing to come in and lend a hand while we got the command center organized. Then I made calls to our professional drivers to see whether they were willing to come in. That was challenging. How do you have that conversation? Employees have the right and obligation to refuse to work in unsafe situations. Their response was, ‘Why didn’t you call me sooner?’ We are such a tight-knit company and community. Our community’s motto is ‘pulling together,’” Menning says, adding that is exactly what everyone did.   

At the command center, “we set up temporary office trailers, tents, electric light towers, power generation, portable toilets and hand-wash facilities, and large waste bins, so the firefighters and volunteers had a centralized place where they could get together and have a coordinated approach to deal with the situation and a place where they could decompress and clean themselves after a hard day of firefighting,” he says. 

Canadian wildfiresCloser to the fire lines, “we were offering our combination trailers, towable high-pressure fire suppression units and water trailers, dry-prime diesel pumps, towable office trailers and refueling trailers and trucks. There were so many fire trucks, excavators and dozers working around the clock that we provided a refueling service. We provided diesel fuel to keep them operating 24/7,” Menning says. 

Just after everything was set up at the command center, the wind shifted. It was now in the direct path of the oncoming fire, so they had to move to a Walmart parking lot on the other side of town.  

“Thankfully, our Drayton Valley store is our largest location. We went back to the office and got all-new equipment and set up a whole new command center. When we had time, we went back to the old command center and brought our equipment back to our location. There was a lot of emotion and we didn’t know what would happen. We were operating on pure adrenaline — trying to do anything we could to save our community,” Menning says.   

They weren’t alone. Local businesses and restaurants came forward to help. “Drayton Valley is very much an oil and gas community. We had a tremendous amount of qualified equipment operators and a huge surplus of dozers, excavators and low-bed trucks. Many of the businesses and restaurants had people who came back and offered support to help, whether to make fire breaks with excavators and dozers or prepare meals for firefighters and volunteers. Firefighters came in from every community and every city within Alberta, as well as the military. The response was so great that they later said they didn’t need any more help,” Menning says.  

The wildfires were pervasive. At the same time Drayton Valley was trying to control one, nearby Edson was dealing with a similar crisis. Residents of that town were being told to evacuate to Hinton, where another All Choice Rentals store is located.  

All Choice Rentals equipment assists firefighters

All Choice Rentals equipment assists firefighters

“Our team at Hinton set up portable toilets all throughout the community. In addition, we also offered a complimentary service to fill everyone’s camper and fifth wheel with water and suck out any waste with our septic and vacuum trucks. We put out a post on LinkedIn and all our social media platforms offering our support and the response was overwhelming. It was certainly a challenge for both locations to be dealing with the wildfires. We were working around the clock to provide as much equipment as possible, trying to help as many people as we could. My district manager even set up a call center in his home to coordinate calls and deliveries. He was answering up to 70 calls per day,” Menning says. 

When the initial evacuation notice went out, residents of Drayton Valley were told to expect to be away from their homes for 72 hours. At that time, Menning and Doerksen made the decision to pay all evacuated members of the company as if it was business as usual. “We didn’t want the wildfires to put anyone in financial distress,” Menning says.  

That pay decision was a great comfort as 72 hours morphed into 12 days before anyone could return to Drayton Valley. To add even more peace of mind to his employees, Menning and his team went to every employee’s home to check that everything was OK, emptied garbage, threw out rotten food from refrigerators, watered plants, fed fish and picked up medicine that some people forgot to bring when they fled their homes. “We wanted to offer some peace of mind, as nobody was planning to be gone 12 days,” Menning says.  

Finally, the fires were contained enough that they weren’t a threat to the community. However, no one could return to Drayton Valley until the city made sure every aspect was operational — that the power was fully restored after it had rolled on and off during the 12 days, that utilities and telecommunications were up and running, the water treatment plant was operational, police and hospitals were ready and grocery stores were stocked.  

Canadian wildfires“The community and county were cautious to make sure everything was 100 percent operational and our town could provide these services to everyone before any residents were allowed to return,” he says. 

All Choice Rentals played a huge role in the welcome back effort, too. “People came back to spoiled food because the power had been out several times while everyone was away. Because we also specialize in waste management, we set out waste bins in Drayton Valley for people to bring us their spoiled garbage. This allowed people to use our bins instead of paying money to bring everything to the landfill,” Menning says.  

In addition, he and Doerksen told employees to not even think about coming to the rental business for non-fire-related duty for at least 48 hours or so after they returned. “We knew that people needed to do laundry, get groceries and resettle before coming back to work as this was a stressful and traumatic situation for many,” Menning says. 

As far as the business is concerned, Menning learned an important lesson during this natural disaster: the need to move the company’s computer servers out of the headquarters in Drayton Valley.  

“Because our servers were at our Drayton Valley location, we couldn’t access them during the disaster.  We had to go back to the old style of writing contracts by hand. We learned that having our five locations run off centralized servers outlined a flaw in our business. Since then, we have moved our servers to a different location. When we returned, we needed a few days to get everything accounted for, do an inventory and such. We had everything documented on paper, but with the number of calls, equipment and requests coming in and out, we had to account for where our equipment was at. After we got that cleared up, we opened the doors to non-fire-related rentals,” he says.  

Looking back on this harrowing incident, Menning says he is very fortunate. “We lost some homes and structures, which is definitely a tragedy, but considering what could have happened, we got very lucky. The fire came right up to the town limit and then the wind changed. It prevented the fire from jumping the highway and into our community. It blew back onto itself. That gave a disaster specialist company enough time to set up a water barrier to prevent the fire from jumping to our community,” he says.  

Menning is also very proud of his team and his overall community for living up to the town’s motto and pulling together when it was so needed. “This really opened my eyes to what people are capable of when faced with a challenging situation. It made me feel proud to belong to this community,” he says.