Alberta releases independent reports on Fort McMurray wildfire response
Report notes province did not warn WBRM officials that fire would enter city
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Devon Henstrige was living in an Abasand apartment in Fort McMurray when he was ordered to evacuate.
He remembers the process well, it was rushed and at one point he said RCMP told him to get out and leave his vehicle lest he and his friend be burned alive.
On Thursday, the province hastily released two third-party reports they commissioned through KPMG and MNP after CBC reported on leaked copies of the reports. The government called the commissioning of such documents “standard practice” after major disasters.
The KPMG report’s introduction suggests that in the week leading up to the fire risk in the Wood Buffalo area had reached unprecedented levels. It reads that the report is not about blame and liability, but about finding ways to improve on disaster response.
The text detailed how the province had matured in their disaster response from their work at the Slave Lake wildfire in 2011 and the Calgary Flood in 2013.
According to the province’s release, the response was a success. They say the reports show their emergency response was sound, appropriate and timely; they were successful at protection critical infrastructure in the region – which made the re-entry efforts come quicker.
However, the MNP report wasn’t as generous. That report paints a picture of crews that were uncoordinated.
On May 3, Alberta Forest’s operation chief realized the fire would enter the city by the afternoon. However, that information was not passed on to the head of operations for Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality. He found out the fire had entered the city over social media.
“This is not consistent with the unified command structure under ICS (standard protocol) which calls for one Operations Chief or two Operations Chiefs working in unison,” read the report.
The reports, which were completed in March 2017, were not released because of fear that they may cause anxiety to the Wood Buffalo community as they approached the fire’s anniversary.
“In consideration of the people of Fort McMurray, we didn’t want to time the release of them close to the date of the anniversary of the fire which we think would have made some people anxious,” said Oneil Carlier, agriculture and forrestry minister.
Henstridge said it’s telling the government is just releasing the report now. What sticks in his mind about the whole situation was that six months before the fire, the NDP government had cut funding to the wildfire response budget by $15 million.
“The report should have been released soon after (they were complete),” Henstridge said. “Now it might just get brushed under the rug.”
The government is implementing 31 recommendations from the reports, including $45 million in FireSmart program funding to help with fire prevention and protection – which is a $15 million increase from the 2017 budget. They hope to strengthen wildfire protection laws and improve procedures for forecasting. Additionally, they’re promising $125 million investment in a new Provincial Operations Centre.
There are plans to get every corner of Alberta on the same radio frequency, by implementing a unified system in every municipality – the Alberta First Responder Radio Communication System (AFRRCS) – but it will take five years to fully implement, according to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Minister responsible for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency Shaye Anderson.
“We’re rolling that out now, it will probably be a matter of about five years before everybody gets on that system,” Anderson said. “It takes time to roll out in all the areas of this province.”
On June 1, Wild Rose Party leader Brian Jean responded to hints that the Wildfire report was forthcoming by asking for a judge-led public inquiry into the fire.
“The Fort McMurray wildfire was the largest natural disaster in our province’s history. We owe it to the residents of Fort McMurray and all Albertans to understand how this fire grew so quickly out of control and how to best prevent another disaster like it in the future,” Jean said. “I made a promise to the residents of Fort McMurray that I would be with them every step of the way as we re-build, and it’s my hope that the NDP government will recognize the need for an inquiry given the magnitude of this disaster.”