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Fort McMurray inferno; doctors describe medical evacuation

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OTTAWA, ONTARIO, CANADA – An exclusive CMAJ news article recounts the medical evacuation of the Fort McMurray hospital and the challenges in ensuring the safety of more than 120 patients as the unpredictable inferno raged in Alberta, Canada

"We could see right across Highway 63 where the flames were jumping from treetop to treetop," says Dr. Jonathan Bowman, an emergency physician at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray. "It was moving quickly. The smoke was pretty thick in the air. You could just hear this roar of fire. It was a surreal experience. You think: 'This can't be happening.'"

Dr. Paul Geoffrion recalls thinking that "If the firefighters are abandoning a whole subdivision, "this thing's out of control." That was the first time it hit him: "We really have to think about evacuation here."

Physicians and nursing staff began organizing for an evacuation; the official notice to evacuate never came.

Elderly patients, women who had just given birth and their babies, psychiatric patients and more were safely evacuated to an empty space that the medical team had to outfit as an emergency field hospital to care for patients.

The summer of 2016 is expected to be difficult in terms of forest fires in northern Alberta. The emergency physicians hope that others will learn from their experience in case other communities are threatened and their hospitals require emergency evacuation.

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Kim Barnhardt
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@CMAJ

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