FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – A report on lessons learned from the Fort McMurray wildfire recommends improved prevention measures along with better disaster management and evacuation planning.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo commissioned the KPMG review following the fire in May 2016 that forced about 88,000 people to flee the area in northeastern Alberta.
Mayor Melissa Blake said other communities in Canada facing the threat of wildfires can learn from Fort McMurray’s experience by stepping up prevention work such as clearing trees and brush from around homes.
Blake said there was pushback from residents about tree-clearing before the disaster that torched more than 2,500 homes and caused $3.6 billion in insured property damage. But since the fire, people have become more open to the idea.
“Unfortunately what we have experienced in the community is that when you take trees off of the greenbelt people get quite concerned and agitated by it,” Blake said Thursday. “Fire-smarting is absolutely a critical component to helping to mitigate.”
The report said in the years leading up to the fire very little was spent on wildfire prevention programs in the region. Since the disaster, Alberta and the Red Cross have pledged $14 million for FireSmart mitigation efforts.
The report said the municipality did a good job protecting people’s safety and noted that nobody died as a direct result of the wildfire. Two people were killed in a traffic accident during the evacuation.
It recommends that key emergency leaders take more training, pass on their knowledge to staff and use a command system to better co-ordinate how a disaster is managed.
Fire Chief Jody Butz said it is possible that residents could have been given clearer information earlier about the need to evacuate on May 3 if there had been better command and control.
Butz said the municipality has bolstered training and strengthened its emergency management plans since the fire.
“This report has given us the perspective that we needed to be able to take a hard look at the areas we need to improve upon,” he said.
“We are not going to shy away from addressing these issues as we have a duty to the residents to ensure that we are doing our part to make our region both safe and resilient.”
The report recommends that other communities in the region, including First Nations, should be included in evacuation planning.
KPMG also says the municipality should include a pet rescue program in its emergency management plan. During the wildfire, volunteers and others saved or looked after more than 1,600 dogs, cats and reptiles.
The municipality said it accepts all the report’s recommendations and is already working to put them into effect.
The Fort McMurray report comes as more than 150 wildfires burn in British Columbia that have forced thousands of people from their homes.
— By John Cotter in Edmonton