The Wildfire Reports: A political firestorm

Wildrose leader Brian Jean is furious with the NDP government’s response to two reports on the Fort McMurray wildfire.

He says the government is attempting to whitewash the reports’ findings and delayed releasing them in a shocking display of arrogance which is “totally unacceptable in any democracy.”  He wants a judge-led independent public inquiry into the matter.

Right.  Let’s give Brian a moment to catch his breath while we consider the points he’s raised.  


Governments and businesses are as different as chalk and cheese however when they conduct an audit they apply the same audit processes.


Fort McMurray Wildfire

After a serious incident both will retain an independent third-party auditor to determine what went right, what went wrong, and what can be done to improve performance in the future.

In this case the NDP government hired KPMG and MNP, two highly reputable chartered accounting and audit firms, to review the government’s response to the Fort McMurray wildfire and provide recommendations for improvement.

The government received the final versions of the audit reports in May 2017.  The government intended to release both reports on June 13, 2017 but they were leaked by the media on June 9, four days before the government’s release date.

The leak gave Mr Jean a chance to grab the spot light and accuse the government of disgracefully attempting to mislead the public by whitewashing the reports and delaying their release.

Had Mr Jean worked for a publicly traded corporation in the private sector at any point in his career he would have understood that the KPMG and MNP reports are part of an audit process.  The audit process is comprised of four parts: (1) the auditor gathers the facts, (2) he analyses them, (3) he makes a number of recommendations and (4) the client (government or corporation) develops an implementation plan that responds to each recommendation.

It is irresponsible for a client (government or corporation) to release an auditor’s report to the public that is not in its final form and without an implementation plan.

It takes time to develop a robust implementation plan to address a complex situation.

In this case the government engaged with federal, extra-provincial, and local governments, NGOs and First Nations as well as key government departments including emergency management, public health, environment, agriculture and forestry, and OH&S.

The government started this work well before it received the audit reports, but couldn’t finish until it received the final draft of the second audit report on May 20, 2017.

A three-week delay from the day the government received the final versions of the auditors’ reports and its release of the reports plus its implementation plans is not a shocking display of arrogance or a blow to democracy;  it’s a prompt professional response by a government that wants to get the job done right (and a much faster turnaround than anything Ms Soapbox has witnessed in the private sector).

“Lives at risk”

Mr Jean says the government failed to respond to the wildfire in a timely manner and thousands of lives were at risk.

Mr Jean may believe this to be true but the audit reports do not confirm his allegation.


Wildrose leader Brian Jean

The KPMG report said the government successfully handled a disaster of “extraordinary scale” by integrating the lessons learned from past disasters.  It notes the Emergency Management Agency and government departments performed well then goes on to provide 21 recommendations to improve how the government interfaces with local authorities, non-governmental agencies, the federal government, industry, aboriginal groups and communities.

The MNP report focused on the department of Agriculture and Forestry.  It said the department recognized the wildfire hazard to be high and was prepared earlier than usual.  It provides 10 recommendations including advancing the start of fire season, improving wildfire-related forecasting and improving and expanding strategic and operational capacity.

The most compelling assessment of the government’s response comes from a fire fighter who battled the blaze which became known as The Beast.

Fire chief Jody Butz said “Obviously, in reflection, we can all agree [the response] wasn’t soon enough…but in understanding the size and the scale of how this wildfire had blown up, for all intents and purposes, I think the work done from that point forward was incredible.”

The Beast raged for five weeks.  It consumed 589,000 hectares.  It leapt over the Athabasca River where it was one kilometer wide.  It’s the worst disaster in Canadian history; 88,000 people were safely evacuated, two unfortunate souls lost their lives traveling on the highway.

A political response

Mr Jean may choose to cherry pick and inflate the findings of the audit reports but he should heed the warning contained in the MNP report:  while the first 36 hours of a wildfire are critical “it is not possible to determine whether any alternative decisions or actions … would have resulted in a different outcome.”

A businessman will accept the results of a professional audit.  A politician will second-guess decisions made and actions taken from the safety of his arm chair hoping to set off a political firestorm.

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33 Responses to The Wildfire Reports: A political firestorm

  1. RJ Pisko says:

    Why is Brian Jean so stupid? He’s extreme right – and gains whatever popularity he has or can garner by appealing to his “base” – stupidity feeds off stupidity, and he certainly gives “them” what they crave. Stupidity. You know, like Trump’s base . . . believe me, I know these people – I live in Wild rose country (southwestern part of Alberta), where everyone hates the NDP Socialist bastards . . . where the oil patch, coal mining, and shredding the back country on quads and big 4X4’s is religion.

    • RJ: I imagine living in the heart of Wildrose country would be a quite a challenge!
      The Calgary Herald ran a piece on the destruction of a Pride flag at a school. The article quoted Cody Johnston, a WR member, who said he was deluged with homophobic comments when he invited party members to support him at a Pride Run. He also said he got messages of support from Brian Jean (!) and other WR members. Johnston said: “I am confident that these hateful comments will be seriously addressed by the party and I would personally expect the resignation of these members for the integrity of the party and all the good things Wildrose stands for”.
      I too would love to see Brian Jean, or better yet Jason Kenney, publicly support the LBGTQ community and throw homophobes out of the party but I seriously doubt that will happen.

  2. Ed Henderson says:

    You mean this KPMG…Wikipedia..Quote..””KPMG tax shelter fraud”” in the States in 2003-2005?

  3. J.E. Molnar says:

    I seriously urge you to submit this piece to Postmedia’s “Opinion/Commentary” section if you have not already so. WELL DONE SUSAN!!

    • Thank you J.E. I’ll certainly consider it. I must admit some of the Postmedia reporters are doing a better job of late in presenting both sides of the issue. Although I wish they’d get better people to write the headlines.
      On a completely unrelated story, today’s Herald carried this headline on the front page” “Complaints against Alberta nurses soar” The article says there were 265 complaints in 2016 compared to 98 complaints 2006. It’s not until you get deeper into the story that you learn this translates to 0.6 per cent of all the nurses working in Alberta — 0.6%!!!

  4. Rick Cowburn says:

    Thanks for the pragmatic review of the process. How arrogant we hairless chimpanzees have become, confident that all natural events can be commanded and controlled. And of course, let us not mention the reality that had a wide strip of cleared land surrounded the city, this would have been a very different event. Let us not take responsibility for our own decisions, our desire to have (flammable) forest next to our houses, nor be humble before nature – let us rather blame The Government. How touchingly human…but foolish, as your piece points out.

    • Kristi says:

      I absolutely agree. Nowadays it seems to be all about the blame game, which doesn’t get us as far as we could otherwise be.

      • Rick and Kirsti: you’re absolutely right about the futility of playing the blame game. Both audit reports point out the obvious—this wildfire was dangerous to humans because humans chose to live smack dab in the middle of a boreal forest full of black spruce which are particularly susceptible to wildfires when temperatures rise, humidity drops, and the winds pick up. The MNP report says wildfires are a natural process and “a necessary renewal agent to ensure maintenance of [the] ecological structure”
        Interestingly the MNP report indicates that the fire season is getting longer and climate change is party to blame..another point that wasn’t raised by Brian Jean when he went on the attack.

  5. political ranger says:

    I don’t understand why you’re so apologetic for the Alberta gov’t fire fighting leadership team Susan. They haven’t and likely won’t. What dog do you have in this fight?
    An audit of a gov’t program response and an audit of corporate financials are completely different beasts. Corporations are looking for assurance of accuracy and completeness; gov’ts are looking for … what? Cover, effectiveness, the truth.
    One thing every forest fire manager knows is that the first 24 hours are determinative of that fires life course. Of course a review of actions taken in that period are of utmost importance. To say otherwise is just a smokescreen.

    • Political Ranger: I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I don’t like to see the WR misrepresent the results of these reports and the timing of their release to further their political aims.
      With respect to your points: This is a non-financial audit similar to those conducted in the private sector after a major incident. KPMG used internationally recognized methodologies relating to emergency management (including ISO 22320:2011). MNP used a different methodology. The PC government instituted a policy requiring post-incident reviews after natural disasters and the recommendations coming out of the 2011 Slave Lake review and the 2013 Southern Alberta flood review helped the government deal with the Fort Mac fire. I’m sure the 31 recommendations coming out of these two reports will better prepare the government for the next natural disaster.
      You’re right, the first few hours of a wildfire are critical. The MNP report says it’s the first 36 hours that matter. I have no experience in this area so I don’t know whether it’s the first 24 or 36 hours but I agree that getting the response right at the very beginning is critical.
      It’s true the NDP government made mistakes in how they responded to the wildfire but we shouldn’t lose sight of the point made by former fire chief Darby Allen and confirmed by KPMG and MNP—the scale and impact of this wildfire was unprecedented.

      • political ranger says:

        I agree that it’s a shameful response by the WR but you have to realize Susan, that the primary goal of these reports is to further political aims. I’m not so sure you can get away with saying the mistakes were the NDP gov’ts; whatever truth there is in that statement is very loosely attached to reality. The fire fighting force, organisation and rules of engagement came from decades of training under the Klien gov’t. Hence, the #1 political aim of this report is to provide cover for the brand new gov’t.
        There is precious little evidence that the recommendations make it out to actions on the ground. As is noted numerous times in these reports two of the big problems with managing the urban interface are time and commitment. In other words, substantial dollars year after year. Those are really big dollars being spent every year and if successful, with no noticeable payback. It never happened under the PC’s. It’s unlikely to happen under the current regime.

    • Steve Cumming says:

      Please be so kind as to identify the specific instances where Susan is “apoligising” for the fire fighting team. And then explain to us the basis you have for your claims.

      • Political ranger: we may have to agree to disagree on the purpose of these reports. I believe the government is treating these reports seriously and will follow through on its commitment to implement the recommendations. The speed with which the recommendations are implemented will depend on their complexity and the availability of funding to underwrite the implementation program (this is the “big dollars/little noticeable payback” problem you highlighted).

        Just to be clear, and to obliquely address the point raised by Steve, the reports say the government responded successfully to the wildfire but also set out numerous areas for improvement. Perhaps the word “mistake” is too strong for the reasons you’ve outlined. The government’s response uses language like “improve” and “better address” as it describes how it intends to implement the recommendations.
        The important point for me is that the government accepted all of the recommendations and is taking steps to ensure it is better prepared the next time a major disaster strikes. In this (I think) it is utterly sincere.

  6. Val Jobson says:

    I thought it was reported that one of the reports was submitted to the government in March?

    • Val, this looks like a terrific book. The author, Damion Asher, talks about the challenge of fighting a wildfire when you’re trained as a municipal firefighter. I wasn’t aware of this distinction until I read in one of the reports that there are three kinds of firefighters–structural firefighters like Asher, wildland-urban interface firefighters and wildland firefighters. The fact that structural firefighters are not trained to fight this kind of blaze underlines just how heroic these men and women are. Thanks to Asher their story will finally be told.

      • Val Jobson says:

        Yes, that was an eye-opener about the three kinds of firefighters; also the mention that many of them have respiratory problems now. So they keep paying for their heroism.

        Crawford Kilian tweeted me a second book review he wrote which also looks fascinating: Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada

      • Val, the comment at the end of the book review is especially telling: “A warming Earth could only enhance the habitat for fire. However Canadians might wish to conceive their relationship to fire, the future promised more flame, not less.” I wonder how long it will take Brian Jean and the WR to figure out the relationship between the “warming Earth” and Fort McMurray.

  7. Ed Henderson says:

    Susan says….”The audit process is comprised of four parts: (1) the auditor gathers the facts, (2) he analyses them, (3) he makes a number of recommendations and (4) the client (government or corporation) develops an implementation plan that responds to each recommendation.”

    Actually there are five parts of the audit process. You missed the first which is…The audit company gets hired, receives instructions and does what it is told to do or does not get paid.

    • Ed, based on my experience in the private sector audit companies do not shy away from telling the companies things they don’t want to hear. It’s true there’s some give and take between the auditor and the company to ensure both parties understand the process that’s being audited, however at the end of the day it’s the audit company’s name on the audit letter. They said what needed to be said and it was up to the company to tell the Board of Directors and shareholders how it intended to fix whatever the auditor said needed to be fixed. Having said all that I worked for good companies, not Enron.

  8. Carlos Beca says:

    Bryan Jean’s attitudes are always the same. He really does not have any aim other than destroying the current government. In fact, in our system, that is the purpose of the Opposition. The problem again is with the whole system which was probably good enough for a time when politicians just wrote cheques because there was enough to go around. Today the situation is quite different but the politicians are from the same school. We do not seem to get sick enough about it.

    The NDP did the same thing in the past and now they have to suffer like others before them. They really have not shown me so far that they are different in any way.

    I agree with Ed Henderson that the very first part of the report is to tell KPMG or MNP what they want on the report. I am sure KPMG is more than willing to accommodate them. They do way worse than that. According to reports from our own Federal Government they are more than willing to set up accounts in tax heavens to their more wealthy clients. Nothing has been done about that of course but I am sure when the government changes again we will briefly ear about it and how the Liberals were horrible dealing with it. After a couple of weeks, the money keeps rolling into the same accounts and problem shelved for another 4 years.

    • Carlos, as you’ve pointed out before I’m more optimistic than you–I have more faith in the NDP than you do, although I’m beginning to come around to your way of thinking when it comes to the federal Liberals.
      I heard an interesting interview with Naomi Klein on the CBC. She was talking about the US election and said instead of focusing on Trump, the reality show president, we should be focusing on what he’s selling (and what he’s been selling for decades), namely, the “winner take all” idea of capitalism which is based on dominance of people and the natural world. She expressed hope that push back from state leaders, city mayors and the public was a sign that people are starting to understand just how dangerous this is. Time will tell whether she’s right.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        Susan I understand what you mean in terms of optimism. You are absolutely right but I think that we are now talking about reality and it is more than just optimism. I do not trust reports by KPMG for obvious reasons and I do not trust when they are paid and requested by the Government, regardless of what party is in power. The Alberta NDP has not convinced me that I am dealing with a serious political entity. This is where I differ from you. I have not seen changes that will make me believe my interests and those of the other Alberta citizens really matter. It is quite apparent to me that the interests of the party are still the ones that count. This is not unique to the NDP of course but this is what has to change. The reason we are stuck is exactly because we are dealing with an outdated political system along with an economic system that run out of adjustments to be viable. They have been tinkering with it since the very first crisis in 1973 but I think that we are now right on the wall and we have no breaks. It does serve the interests of half a dozen people and a couple of countries but not the planet and certainly not the majority of its inhabitants. Unfortunately with the fall of the Russian Mafia, the system was allowed to spread all over and the problem grew to a point that is not easy to return from. This is why the neo liberals and their friends say constantly that there is no alternative. The real issue is that they do not have an alternative. They are not smart enough to envision one.

        For years Governments have been playing this game and I for one cannot play it anymore. It is a question of trust and not optimism. You are a very reasonable and intelligent person with an immense common sense so I doubt that you let optimism overwhelm your reasoning.

        Please answer me this question – Do you really believe this report is not biased?

        The reason why Trump is president of the US is exactly because people are looking for a different type of politics. Of course they made the wrong choice but the fact is that if it was Hillary Clinton it would apparently be better but in reality probably as bad. The fact is that she is apparently a wonderful choice but she would just continue selling the rest of us to corporate interests. So the REAL choice here is selling us to corporate interests versus selling us fast track to corporate interests. Americans chose the latter because they do not have a democracy and they believed in whatever sounded better.

        I personally think that the NDP handled the fire issue quite well and certainly way better than everything I have seen before by the PCs so this report issue is not an issue other than in Brian Jean’s mind which to me is full of webs and sitting in the 1930s.

      • Carlos, you asked whether I believe these post-incident reports are biased. The reason I likened them to audit reports is because they read like audit reports. I’ve worked in the private sector for publicly traded companies for decades. I’ve seen many many audit reports and they’re all structured the same way. They set out the facts, then say “the company did a good job on XXXX, but it can do better on YYYY, specifically if it follows these ZZZ recommendations.” The language of the report is bland and non-judgmental. If the reports said everything was handled well, no improvements are necessary I’d say they were biased but the reports found and reported many short-comings. I agree that the issue isn’t what the reports found but rather how their findings are being interpreted by Brian Jean as a cause for alarm.
        I also agree with the bigger issues you’ve raised: the point that our political system is outdated but politicians and corporate interests won’t let it go because it serves their interests. People all over the world are starting to figure this out.

  9. Steven Anderson says:

    Susan, you do realize that prior to 2004, Mr Jean indeed worked in the private sector. At 53 years of age, that means Mr Jean spent the bulk of his adult career in the private sector. Companies such as the firm Campbell and Cooper.

    • Steven, I am aware that Mr Jean worked at the law firm Campbell and Cooper before he entered politics. I too worked in a large law firm before I went inhouse with a large publicly traded energy company and speak from experience when I say that while a law firm is in the private sector it is light years away from working for a large publicly traded company subject to the securities laws of many jurisdictions. These companies conduct annual audits of the scale of the KPMG/MNP audits. Small/midsized law firms typically do not.

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