Golf courses recover from Fort McMurray fireWritten by Curtis Stock
The fire reduced the Fort McMurray GC clubhouse and maintenance building to ashes, but the greens and fairways were largely untouched.
At its largest its angry flames scorched a perimeter of 1,120 kilometres. It destroyed 2,400 homes and other buildings, forced the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history and, according the Insurance Bureau of Canada, caused damages of $3.58 billion – the most expensive disaster for insurers in the country’s history.
And yet, somehow, someway, and against all odds, the two beautiful golf courses in Fort McMurray – the Fort McMurray Golf Club and Miskanaw – survived.
Miskanaw was barely touched and although the Fort McMurray Golf Club lost its clubhouse, equipment, 100 golf carts, driving range and maintenance building, it was still able to open just two months after the devastating blaze. “We got lucky,” said Fort McMurray’s head pro Jason Vaughn. “The infrastructure is gone but the fire didn’t touch the fairways, greens or tee boxes very much.”
“It’s hard to believe but the only damage we had was one little fence burned a bit,” said Miskanaw’s director of golf Rob MacGregor which is just eight kilometers south east from the Fort McMurray Golf Club.
In the fall of 2014, Miskanaw was renovated and lengthened to 7,031 yards. “There is an island that is just 97 meters away – I know the exact distance because we were thinking about putting a tee box there – and it was on fire but we got lucky,” said MacGregor.
The fire which began on May 1 swept into Fort McMurray, the Oilsands capital, two days later forcing more than 80,000 people to leave. Yet on July 1 the Fort McMurray Golf Club was able to reopen. “We’ve got a fresh start,” said Vaughn. “The only thing we can do is move forward. “We showed that a ‘little’ fire wasn’t going to hurt us,” he said. “We’re bigger and stronger than the fire even as big as it was. “We weren’t going to let it get us down.”
Vaughn said that the grass continued to grow so well that fairways were knee high and the greens a foot or two tall when equipment was finally allowed back on the course. “It’s amazing how fast it grew and how high it grew with no maintenance at all for five weeks.
“When we got back on the course with the maintenance equipment there were spots that were still smoldering and lots of smoke.” At its hottest point, the raging inferno burned at up to 1,000 Celsius.
“The bush is obviously a lot thinner; the trees really took a beating. Including the trees that burnt and were dead we had to take down 2,500 trees that were in danger of falling over. The bottoms of the trees and bush were still thick as ever but the tops of the tress were all brown or black.When we reopened, it looked like early November instead of the first of July but the course itself still plays the same.”
Not only that but the Fort McMurray Golf Club will open this year with nine new holes giving the course 27 in total. “It’s out with the old and in with the new,” said Vaughn, 36, who is in his 11th year as the course’s head professional.
“The new nine will be tough but it will be fun to play,” he said of the addition which was developed by golf course architect Wayne Carleton, who also did some renovations to the existing 18 holes.
Carleton, who has designed several award winning projects like Shadow Mountain in Cranbrook, B.C.; Talking Rock in Chase B.C., Dakota Dunes in Saskatoon, SK, and Black Mountain in Kelowna, B.C., said the plan is to eventually add a fourth nine and have a 36-hole facility. “The new nine holes are very similar to the current two nines but it has a lot more elevation. I’m particularly impressed by the bunkering,” said Vaughn.
The new nine is also a little more forgiving with wider fairways and larger landing zones. Like the existing 18 holes which were designed by Bill Newis – author of courses like Golden, Lethbridge’s Paradise Canyon and Calgary courses like Priddis, Heritage Pointe, Bearspaw, the Hamptons and Cottonwood – the new nine have been carved out of the Borealis Forest and lies along the banks of the Athabasca River.
With several dog legs and lots of shots demanding carries over valleys and creek beds, the greens on the original nine plays from as far as 6,850 yards from the tips. “It’s one of the most challenging courses I’ve played,” said superintendent Jeff Hacior. “It’s tight with out-of-bounds on every hole. You have to be straight. The original 18 is flat but not very forgiving.”
The Fort McMurray Golf Club hosted the Mackenzie Tour – PGA Tour Canada’s Syncrude Boreal Open for five years but were obviously unable to do it again last year.
“It’s onwards and upwards,” said Vaughn, who previously spent seven years in the Edmonton area – four at Jagare Ridge and three at Devon. “The goal is to keep it positive. Fort McMurray is awesome; there is so much support. It’s a real tight-knit group of people and the golf course is kind of like everybody’s second home, me included.”
While the clubhouse and pro shop are currently eight trailers put together, new facilities will be built that Vaughn said will be “bigger and better than what we currently had. We were looking to just add on to the clubhouse – we even had an architect in place – but because of the fire we’re starting from scratch instead.”
The new clubhouse and other structures will open in the spring of 2018. “It’s been an interesting experience to say the least – it’s also been a learning experience,” said Vaughn, who relocated to Calgary during the evacuation. “We’re taking it step by step, moving forward one day at a time and making the best of a bad situation.”
Personally, Vaughn said the early days of the fire were tough for everyone. “The toughest thing was the unknown. Nobody knew if they had a house or a place of work to come back to. We watched the news like everyone else. “Nobody had any answers.” Hacior was in the same position. “When we evacuated nobody had any idea what was happening to our houses or if the golf course was on fire,” he said.
“It was unbelievable. We just kind of watched it explode. When we were able to return to Fort McMurray I was shocked to see how much of the course was still standing. I was expecting way worse. I was surprised I had something to come back to,” said Hacior, a graduate of Olds College, who became the Fort McMurray Golf Club’s superintendent since 2005.
“The fire was too massive – it was crazy how big it was but we didn’t have to start off from ground zero to any extent. It’s hard to burn green grass; it doesn’t turn on fire. There was lots of fuel for the fire in the trees but not in the grass.”
“When we got back to the course five weeks later we got some rain and it was amazing how fast the turf came back and it came back as good as it was if not better. The toughest challenge was simply trying to reopen, salvage the rest of the season and put out the product that our members and green-fee players expected.”
“Yet, within just two weeks, we were back to where we wanted to be. By mid-July the golfers hardly knew any difference.” Getting there, Haicor said was only possible because of companies like John Deere and Oakcreek Golf and Turf. “Until we got new equipment those companies all gave us loaner equipment.”
Hacior said in a matter of time everything will regenerate. “I can already see some dogwoods and poplars coming back. Anything in the forest, when it burns, replenishes itself.”
“Now we’re all excited,” said Vaughn. “We’re all looking forward to a typical Fort McMurray summer; we’re looking for some normality.”
This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of The Alberta Golfer Magazine. To view the full magazine, click here.