News / Canada

Fort McMurray one year later: What evacuation experts learned from facing the 'worst case scenario'

Officials already implementing key takeaways from evacuation.

A wildfire rips through the forest 16 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, Alta., on highway 63 on May 7, 2016.

The Canadian Press

A wildfire rips through the forest 16 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, Alta., on highway 63 on May 7, 2016.

Improved inter-agency communication, more escape routes and the power of social media were three major emergency response takeaways from the devastating Fort McMurray wildfires.

When fire jumped the Athabasca River around noon on May 3, 2016, within two hours three communities – Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace – were ordered to evacuate.

Two hours later, a mandatory evacuation was given for all residents of Fort McMurray.

Tens of thousands fled south in bumper-to-bumper traffic as the fire enveloped the only major road out of the bustling Alberta city. Thousands more were sent north to relative safety in nearby oilsands camps.

Rapidly changing fire conditions due to fierce winds and historically dry conditions limited evacuation routes, and short notice created a nightmare scenario for emergency management officials.

“It was just the worst case scenario we could probably have,” said Jordan Redshaw, communications manager with the Fort McMurray Recovery Task Force.

Redshaw said they’re already putting in place measures to improve future response.

Training exercises have already been conducted, closing gaps in future communication between different responding units – one of the areas they immediately identified for improvement.

Tim Haney, director of the Centre for Community Disaster Research at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said communication issues, especially in fire situations, isn’t uncommon.

“Fire is a really hard one to evacuate from,” Haney said. “It can move quickly or slowly. It’s very hard to give people advanced notice.”

The nature of communication between emergency units and then having that information relayed to the general public makes calling an evacuation tricky, Haney said. If you call an evacuation too early and it doesn’t come anywhere near people, they may not trust you next time.

“It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. If you call it too late, you’re putting people’s lives and property in danger,” Haney said.

A convoy of cars and trucks pass wildfires as they are evacuated from Fort McMurray, Alta., on highway 63 south of the city on Saturday, May 7, 2016.

Canadian Press file

A convoy of cars and trucks pass wildfires as they are evacuated from Fort McMurray, Alta., on highway 63 south of the city on Saturday, May 7, 2016.

One road out  

The fire also underscored the need for a second route out of Fort McMurray, something both Redshaw and Haney reiterated.

“Fort McMurray’s basically a one-road-in, one-road-out city. That’s just a nightmare for calling an evacuation,” said Haney, adding that most cities have multiple access points.

Redshaw said a second major entry point is being planned as one of the primary mitigation efforts coming out of last year’s fire. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has put forth $5 million for pre-design of the East Clearwater Highway.

“When fire hit the highway it definitely created a challenge on where to direct folks,” Redshaw said.

To date, the province hasn’t committed partnership funding for that project.

While social media was an obvious source of gathering and delivering information to its tech-savvy residents, Redshaw said they also learned how valuable it could be in deploying emergency resources.

They were sourcing out people who still needed assistance and those who needed to be checked on as the fire breached the city.

“We were actually using that to activate our municipal law enforcement or RCMP to actually go and look into those addresses,” Redshaw said.

Aside from using social media for logistics and information, Redshaw said they used it for emotional outreach to residents.

“It’s easy to forget, especially as a government organization, the importance of empathy when relating to the public. Just being honest and transparent about what you’re doing is critical to building trust with the community,” he said.

Haney noted University of Alberta research done after the Fort McMurray wildfire showed that people who followed the situation via social media were twice as likely to engage in a “helping behaviour” such as making a donation or volunteering.

Redshaw said there’s still more to learn from this disaster and how they can respond. The RMWB is expected to issue their official report on the wildfire, as is the provincial government, later this year.

Today, however, there’s a new expertise in handling a crisis of this nature – including all the lessons learned from last year’s devastating wildfire.

“The knowledge gained and the lessons learned … just to be able to work through that environment is exceptional in terms of the value,” Redshaw said.

The task of recovery holds lessons of its own. But, Redshaw said there’s a clear picture of what they want to achieve.

“There’s a collective motivation to do better. I think there’s a really big commitment here to get everyone back in their homes.”


About this series: every day this week Metro is going back to Fort McMurray, one year after the costliest disaster Canada has ever seen, to check in on the successes, challenges and future of rebuilding.

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