What We Learned from the Fort McMurray Wildfire

The government calls it MWF-009.

Darby Allen, the regional fire chief of Wood Buffalo, calls it The Beast.

Regardless of what it’s called the Fort McMurray wildfire is erratic, unpredictable and extremely dangerous.

It was spotted on Sunday May 1; five hundred hectares burning southwest of the city.  By Sunday May 8 more than 161,000 hectares were ablaze, 80,000 people were evacuated and the province was in a state of emergency.

edm-fortmac-330_2500kbps_852x480_678748739949

The Beast continues to grow.  It’s developed its own weather patterns.  Wind blows where it wants blow and lightning strikes where it wants to strike.  It will continue to grow until it’s extinguished by rain.

The Beast is fearsome, but it’s taught Albertans five remarkable things about themselves and their government.

One: The Government will deliver  

When Premier Notley was asked how she intended to deal with wildfires given the reduction in the firefighting budget she said every resource required would be dedicated, “no holds barred”.

She wasn’t kidding!

From the minute Ms Notley declared a state of emergency she’s been working across all departments and with all levels of government, as well as business and non-profit organizations to protect public safety.

The evacuation of Northern Lights hospital is an example.  Healthcare workers evacuated 105 patients (73 acute care and 32 continuing care patients including 9 newborns and their moms) to 12 receiving hospitals and care facilities.  WestJet provided the planes and Suncor provided the air strip to get it done.

(Healthcare workers completed the evacuation while they themselves were under an evacuation order.)

Twelve evacuee receptions centres have been set up throughout the province.  An emergency cash plan of $1,250/adult and $500/dependent was announced.  Identification documents and healthcare insurance cards will be replaced for free.

Displaced students may attend schools in their relocation areas.  Provincial achievement tests for displaced grade 6 and 9 students are cancelled and a process to address the Grade 12 diploma exams is underway.

The government started re-entry planning work to ensure infrastructure and basic utilities are safe when residents return.  The Alberta Energy Regulator set up an emergency centre to help energy producers restart production once the danger has passed.

Any evacuees who need a breather after their ordeal may visit any of Alberta’s historic sites and museums at no cost.

Two:  The Opposition plays fair  

A crisis brings out the best in people, even politicians.

Drew Barnes, speaking on behalf of the Wildrose Opposition, told the House that the Fort Mac wildfire should not be used for “politics or bluster”.   Rather than ambush the government in Question Period the Wildrose Opposition circulated its questions in advance to give the government an opportunity to better prepare its answers.

Consequently Ms Larivee, the minister for Municipal Affairs, was able to provide additional details on the sufficiency of firefighting resources, the impact of the provincial state of emergency on municipal governments (jurisdiction for all matters relating to the wildfire shifts to the province for 28 days) and other issues such as social support for evacuees and caring for abandoned livestock and pets.

Three:  Fort Mac residents are courageous   

The media is full of harrowing stories of residents tracking down their loved ones, throwing a few possessions into the car and heading north or south in search of safety.  They encountered gridlock on the highway, walls of fire along the roadside and clouds of billowing smoke.

o-fort-mcmurray-wildfire-facebookAnd yet there are no reports of road rage on the highway or fist fights over a tank of gas at a gas station.

The people of Fort McMurray demonstrated remarkable courage, resilience and compassion by responding to an out-of-control wildfire with an orderly evacuation even as glowing embers skittered across the hoods of their cars and their neighbourhoods turned into infernos.

Four:  Canadians are compassionate   

Canadians responded this crisis with an outpouring of charitable donations.  The Canadian Red Cross reported donations in the range of $30 million in less than a week.

The provincial and federal governments pledged to match every dollar donated.

This generosity is mirrored in the cash contributions and in-kind donations made by businesses, banks, the energy industry, industry associations, universities and colleges, professional associations, non-profit groups, churches and mosques and the tiny town of Lac-Mégantic which suffered its own fire-related tragedy in 2013.

Five:  Fort Mac will rebuild

The Alberta government has two messages for the people of Fort McMurray.

The first is a promise from Premier Notley to keep them save and to help them on the road to recovery.

The second is a personal message from Danielle Larivee, the minister of Municipal Affairs, and a survivor of the devastating wildfire that destroyed 40% of the town of Slave Lake in 2011.

Ms Larivee says: “I speak as someone who has been there and through that in Slave Lake:  You can do it.  Your community will be rebuilt.  Alberta will rally around and be behind you…in the end your community will be strengthened by the way you have worked together in this experience.”

Many would be crushed by the challenge ahead, but if we’ve learned anything from The Beast it’s this:  the people of Fort McMurray and their friends in the rest of Alberta and Canada are resilient and compassionate.

They confronted The Beast and overcame the traps that skewered recovery efforts elsewhere–fear, greed, political opportunism and bureaucratic bungling.

Fort McMurray will rebuild because to paraphrase a Fort Mac firefighter, “Albertans will not leave this place without a fight.”

Sources: 

Globe and Mail May 6, 2017, A7 and May 7, A10

Government of Alberta Situation Update May 8, 4:15 p.m.

Alberta Hansard May 5, 2016, p 809 and 813   

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30 Responses to What We Learned from the Fort McMurray Wildfire

  1. david says:

    Very well summarized Susan! Wonderful to know that under such extreme circumstances people (including politicians!) can rally humanity to our highest values. Ironically we humans may need intermittent crises to remember why we’re here!
    Premier Notley deserves nothing but high praise for her own sacrifices during this terrifying time.
    Keep up your thoughtful and well-researched commentary.

  2. anonymous says:

    Too soon?

  3. jvandervlugt says:

    Hi Susan. People everywhere will remember where they were when they heard the news about Fort Mac. I was sitting on the bus going into work, swallowing tears when I saw that video of the vehicle basically driving into Hell. That’s what it looked like. Thank you for covering this disaster. My thoughts and prayers are with the residents of Fort Mac as they start over again, basically with the shirt on their back. It’s good to see Canadians doing what they do best–helping others in the most desperate of times.

    • Joanna, I heard a CBC interview with Crystal Mercredi, a young mother from Fort McMurray. She described the helplessness and fear she experienced as the day wore on. Her neighbourhood was under voluntary evacuation but she decided to leave when her house was surround by smoke and hot embers kept falling in her yard. She said her nephew was pulled out of school an hour before it burned down (later we learned that no schools were burned but that shows you how confusing things get in a crisis). Her husband reported seeing two school buses packed with kids stuck in gridlock trying to get out of town. The parents of these children must have been sick with worry. How do people go through something like this and return to normal life?

  4. Elaine Fleming says:

    Yes, Susan, what a daunting challenge for a government to respond effectively to this ongoing and unpredictable disaster. Rachel Notley has risen to this challenge and is showing what strong and confident leadership is about. While doing this she is also inspiring others to stay focussed on the critical services and community efforts needed to contain the wildfires, keep people safe and provide for their needs.

    And yet, there are incredibly vitriolic, spewing posts circulating on social media condemning Notley regarding her response to the wildfire disaster. One that gave me pause claimed if she was doing her job she would be up in Ft. McMurray handing out water bottles, and then used a profanity to describe her. This is the mentality of that certain group of folks in our province who would trash her even if she reached up into the sky and brought rain down on the inferno.

    You were very generous in your comments about the opposition parties pulling back on their irrational attacks on the Notley government at this time, but you know and I know the kind of people who are fomenting hatred of the Notley government are the very ones the Wildrose and PC parties pander to.

    • Julie Ali says:

      Hi Elaine, perhaps some of the attacks might be understandable if you read rural newspapers.

      For folks in places like Lac la Biche for example where my dad lived for ages, there is a constant risk of forest fires. Fires are real to rural folks as it is not to city folks. Well at least until now it wasn’t real to city folks.

      At the time when the budget for fire fighting was cut by the NDP government, there were 30 fires near the Lac la Biche area alone.

      http://www.laclabichepost.com/article/20160422/LLB0801/160429998/-1/LLB

      Province cuts water-bomber contracts by $5.1 million
      Friday, Apr 22, 2016 10:09 am
      Lac La Biche County will be a home for firefighting air tankers again this year, but they might not be staying at the local base—or even in Alberta—to the end of the fire season.
      The provincial government has reduced tanker contracts for 2016 by $5.1 million, shortening the agreement lengths for aerial firefighting services from four months to three.
      Despite the initial cost-saving measures, officials with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, the ministry that handles wildfire management, say the contracts can be extended if necessary.
      “We will manage the contracts appropriately as the season dictates,” said ministry spokesperson Renato Gandia. “We can’t predict what the season will turn out to be, but we will ensure that we have the resources required to handle the situation.”
      Local Forestry staffers are predicting this year’s fire season will be busy because of consistently dry conditions. There have already been more than 30 wildfires in the Lac La Biche region since the season officially began on March 1, including a blaze last Monday night that temporarily closed Highway 63 near Atmore.
      *************************************************************

      When you have thirty fires already and the province cuts the future fire fighting budget this doesn’t seem very sensible for folks living in Lac la Biche.

      I have to admit that this move by the NDP folks does not sound sensible to me either. The result of this cut was that the contracts for fire fighting companies was decreased in terms of length.

      In addition fewer contracts were awarded which means to me –that there weren’t enough folks in place right away to do the job of firefighting by air tankers at least:

      http://www.laclabichepost.com/article/20160422/LLB0801/160429998/-1/LLB

      The province has 13 tanker bases but is only hiring eight aircraft groups. Each group typically includes a spotter airplane or birddog, along with multiple amphibious planes that are equipped to carry loads of water or fire retardant.
      ****************************************************

      Even if this budget was not in place and had no effect on the fire in Fort McMurray, the decision to cut and wait suggests -at least to me -that the NDP folks don’t understand this issue very well or don’t consider it as important as health or education— to put money into it upfront.

      Now that we have one of the major cities burned down in a catastrophic fire in Alberta, I guess the NDP folks understand that this is an area where money must be present upfront.

      Putting money into it as fires happen–well– this is just not good government in my mind. I can’t see how this happened after Slave Lake’s disaster. I feel that the response should have been (in my mind) more experienced at least in terms of allocation of money.

      Why did the NDP folks decide to cut the fire fighting budget when fires were already happening and the risk for fires was high? It doesn’t matter to me if the budget wasn’t active or not. It seems odd.

      It feels like they took a risk by cutting money for fire fighting; this sort of risk taking indicates to me that they don’t have a good grasp of the problems this can cause because if you don’t have the money you also don’t have the contracted workers for the job ready in the numbers or for the length of time required.

      This risk might be mitigated by dumping money later on when you have Fort McMurray burn down but this still tells me that the government was not taking the problem of forest fires seriously until all hell broke loose.

      When all hell breaks loose, it is good that everyone came together but I can’t help but wondering what if everyone had come together to prevent this catastrophe from happening? Some folks say it could not have been prevented but who will do the evaluation of this mess to determine if indeed something could have been done and was not done due to inexperience, lack of money or foresight? A review of this catastrophe and the government response–is warranted.

      Do the NDP MLAs we have hired understand prioritization of issues or even the issues themselves? Certainly in this case, they seem to have failed to understand the fire hazard issue in rural Alberta until the issue went out of control.

      Now that city folks now know what rural folks knew all along-that you can’t play it safe financially while fires rage— what will the NDP government do to prevent future fires in Fort McMurray? With the importance of the oil sands you would think there would be deep dish planning with reference to this problem. I believe there is some planning (FireSmart® Field Guide for Upstream Oil and Gas Industry. A field guide for frontline operators to help prevent wildfires and reduce the impact of catastrophic wildfire on industry infrastructure, operations, personnel safety, liability and the environment) but it doesn’t seem to have worked here.

      Maybe such work needs to be done now? What was learned from this catastrophe? Certainly I hope the NDP folks have learned not to cut the fire fighting budget at least when the risk of fire is high in rural Alberta.

      I believe most rural Albertans and indeed all Albertans are kind and generous folks. We have proof of this in the amazing response of folks at Lac la Biche who have taken in so many people from Fort McMurray. Some of the anger directed at Ms. Notley and team maybe due to the failure of NDP government to respond to people about major issues folks in rural Alberta are experiencing. I know how this feels. If you are ignored like many rural Albertans are despite horrific challenges you will feel hurt and marginalized. Just refer to my post about Diana Daunheimer’s experience with the NDP government. Despite the exposure of her family to incredible levels of H2S -Alberta Health and AHS have basically ignored her plight. But when a professor in Edmonton complains, he gets a response from Sarah Hoffman pronto:

      http://readingchildrensbooks.blogspot.ca/2016/05/why-does-dr-bennett-warrant-response.html

      Why does Dr. Bennett warrant a response but not Diana Daunheimer?—-

      *************************
      You can’t help but feel sympathetic to rural Albertans like Diana Daunheimer who are not being helped by the NDP folks and this makes me feel that perhaps ordinary people in Alberta are nothing. We elected the NDP to government. They are supposed to be the people’s party. And yet when we bring our problems to them, they do nothing to help us. Why would folks who have been ignored, disrespected and shamed not feel angry? How would any of us feel if we are treated like this?

      • Elaine Fleming says:

        Thanks, Julie, I appreciate your in-depth response to my comments.

        I do empathize with the anxiety that folks in the rural areas are going through, wondering which communities could next be threatened by wild fires. With the drought and unprecedented temperatures of the last several years, we are all wondering where this will end.

        My family has farmed in the Edmonton area for three generations.The younger ones have moved hither and yon to big cities (for the most part) but I still have two uncles on the farm. One of them, close to Bruderheim, nearly lost his place a couple of weeks ago. The fire was contained 1/4 mile from the farm.

        And, now we know cities are not immune- Fort McMurray being one obvious example. The ravines and grasslands in and around Edmonton are tinderboxes, with 1/3 of the canopy dried up and plenty of deadfall on the ground. Yesterday there were five fires in Edmonton related to these conditions, with one in the Wolf Willow neighbourhood leaving three homes badly burned.

        We are all vulnerable to the effects of climate change and will need to pull together to get through this time and what lies ahead. My daughter-in-law is a City of Edmonton employee, and they are being given leave from their jobs to help out at the Northlands evacuation centre. The little school in our neighbourhood just took in five students who were evacuated from the fire zone.

        What I’m saying is, we’re all in this together. It’s also true that you don’t have to talk long to someone in Alberta to find some kind of connection. Probably about three degrees of separation!

      • Elaine and Julie, I’m sure we’re going to be hearing a lot more in the coming days and weeks about whether this crisis was properly managed. There will be questions around whether the authorities (and I’m not sure which level of government we’re talking about) acted quickly enough in spotting the fire and trying to get it under control or at least keep it away from Fort McMurray. There will be questions about municipal planning and whether more could have been done to protect Fort Mac as it was being built–some oil companies surround their facilities with vegetation free zones which act as firebreaks. Then there’s the question of whether the projected budget cuts had anything to do with the effectiveness of the response. The minister of agriculture and forestry, Oneil Carter, says it didn’t. There will be questions about the timing of the provincial state of emergency which shifted jurisdiction for all wildfire related activity to the province and whether the Mayor of Wood Buffalo waited too long to issue the mandatory evacuation orders. This is an extremely complex issue, I’m going to wait until I learn more about all the dynamics that were in play.

        Elaine, your description of how Edmonton stepped up to help the evacuees is heart warming and reflects the response I’ve seen in Calgary. We’re all in this together, aren’t we.

    • jerrymacgp says:

      Well, the haters are gonna hate, and the trolls are gonna troll. Nothing is going to change that. But hopefully the vast majority will see through them & ignore their vitriol.

      • GoinFawr says:

        EX-Leper: Half a dinare for me bloody life’s story?
        Brian:…There’s no pleasing some people
        EX-Leper: That’s just what Jesus said sir!

        I’m not trying to suggest any blasphemous equivalencies or anything, but I’m sure you get the idea.

      • GoinFawr: that was an unusual quote, but I think I get your drift. Thanks.

      • Jerrymacgp: very true. So far I’ve received only one snotty comment attacking the premier but I’m sure there will be more. I’m not opposed to publishing viewpoints that don’t agree with my own, but I won’t publish a rant that is unsupported by any evidence.

      • Knowing some of the trolls as I do …. if Rachel Notley walked on water the song would be “see, look at that; she can’t even swim!” For that reason, I do not read the personal comments any more. I am no ND but I think Rachel Notley is doing a fantastic job. Bravo et merci!! 🙂

      • Jane, you’re so right. Rachel Notley met with the top executives from the energy industry today to discuss how they’d work together to resume normal production. The industry attendees were Suncor, Shell, Enbridge, Syncrude, CNRL, Imperial, Nexen, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Husky, MEG, Athabasca Oil, Japan Oil, Canadian Utilities and CAPP. The fact that she was able to get the head honchos from 15 companies into the same room at the same time says a lot for her leadership and provides yet another example of why the trolls who complained she wasn’t doing enough because she wasn’t handing out water bottles at an evacuation centre have got it all wrong.

  5. Peter Usher says:

    Elaine,
    Some people cannot see the good in others because they can’t see the good in themselves.

    • Peter, that’s an insightful observation.

    • Carlos Beca says:

      That is because they have no good at all. 🙂
      Lots of those in politics – that is why it takes a crisis to see any good.

      • Carlos, we need to find a way to get those politicians to maintain that spirit of cooperation after the crisis is over. I’ve been watching the Legislature this week. It didn’t take long for the Opposition to revert back to cranky negativity.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        Of course not Susan. Our system is based on antagonism. It starts with the word opposition. On top of that, because of its nature, the system attracts mostly men that need to prove something. Is it any surprise that most women do not bother? Women in general have a much harder time dealing with this kind of diseased competition. Look at 90% of the women that are getting in politics. They are imitating men. They have no chance yet to make the system more intelligent.
        We need great reforms in the system if we want to continue to be relevant in this century. It is our choice. Justin Trudeau showed some signs of it but it is rapidly becoming just show. The minister of Democratic Reform is too rookie to be able to impose some sense of reality. They are already overriding her. They chose her to be able to puppet her around.
        We as Canadians can either do something about it or not, but frankly I do not see any real appetite for it. Not in the level that will force politicians to move forward.
        The excuse now repeated ad nausea is that it failed in BC and Ontario. Really? In Bc they had 60% support but the premier at the time basically shut it down by saying that kind of support is not enough!! Ok I guess – it sounds like a democratic voice talking.

  6. “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama

    • Communitynetworks, what a lovely quote. It’s heart warming to see that so many Albertans and Canadians fall into the “helping” category. The Red Cross reports it’s collected more than $60 million so far with $51 million coming from individual donors. Amazing.

  7. ronmac says:

    Fifteen years ago I had a close up and personal with the great Chisholm fire of ’01 in north central Alberta. I remember standing on the highway one night, overlooking the countryside, and seeing a wall of flames on the horizon coming towards me. It was quite a sight. I was reminded me of those biblical descriptions of the Gates of Hell. Apocalyptic.

    Luckily the winds changed direction and blew the fire the other way. We were saved.

    • Ronmac I looked up the Chisolm fire–116,000 hectares burned, 10 houses destroyed, $30 million to suppress, and likely caused by a spark from a passing locomotive. CN Rail and other rail companies paid $18.6 million to settle out of court. It was bad…but for a capricious change in wind direction it would have been an awful lot worse.

  8. Elaine Fleming says:

    Susan, maybe you have seen this news article in the “Business Unit” for CBC news where columnist Don Pittis discusses different disasters that have struck, and our “human nature” to not to be proactive in anticipating future catastrophes. He refers to warnings by fire investigator Brian Stocks, “Long before the blaze in Fort McMurray, and the similar one in Slave Lake, Stocks and his colleagues warned that as human activity reached deeper into the northern forest, disasters were going to become more, not less, likely to happen.” He also quoted Stocks blunt assessment of the human condition, “We’re in a society nowadays where people have the attention span of a ferret on a double espresso …”

    Make mine an Americano! With “room”.

    http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/business/fort-mcmurray-disaster-risk-prevention-1.3567955

    • Elaine, thanks for the link. I was reading the Flat Top Complex Report that was commissioned after the Slave Lake fire. The Report said the Flat Top Complex fire “is the strongest warning to date that expanded residential and industrial development in Alberta’s wildlands, in combination with increasingly severe wildfire conditions, requires increased focus by fire control organizations (structural and wildfire) as well as stakeholders, communities,and the public.” and five years later here we are again. Lends credence to Stocks comment that we have the attention span of a ferret doesn’t it.

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