Albertans “can expect similar or worse outcomes on a more frequent basis” as climate change and urbanization drive up wildfire activity, unless the province distills lessons learned from the devastating blaze that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray last spring, according to an evaluation submitted to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in March and leaked to CBC News late last week.
“It cannot be stressed enough that the threat of wildfires in Alberta only stands to grow, driven in part by a changing climate and increasingly mature forest complexes,” the report stated. “As more human economic development occurs in wildland areas, more numerous and diverse values on the landscape will be placed at risk of wildfire.”
In 2016, the “massive Fort McMurray wildfire caught officials off guard, and the resulting battle to save the city was disorganized because regional and provincial authorities failed to share information in the earliest, most critical days,” CBC reports.
“In the earliest days of the May 2016 fire, municipal crews reported to the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, while provincial firefighters were coordinated through the wildfire’s incident command centre,” the national broadcaster notes, citing the report. That had particularly dire consequences on the morning of May 3, the day 90,000 people were ordered to evacuate the city—because while the provincial incident commander saw that the fire would hit the city that afternoon, the information never reached municipal firefighters through official channels.
Since the administrative connection between the two firefighting leads went through two or three intermediaries, the operations chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo “discovered the wildfire was in the community through public reports over social media.” The provincial and municipal firefighting operations weren’t even operating on a shared radio channel.
“Consequently, at critical times, when municipal and wildland firefighters were not physically working together on the ground, they could not directly communicate by radio to identify priorities or support each other. This was particularly problematic when it came to air attack. Alberta Forestry aircraft had no way to forward a direct message to municipal firefighters,” stated the report, prepared by MNP LLP and wildfire specialists from British Columbia and Ontario.
“Likewise, municipal firefighters had no way of asking for support or directing air tanker drops,” sometimes resorting to “physical signals that the aircraft could see”.
Part of the problem, the consultants found, was that the province was still in “spring startup mindset”, expecting that the heart of the 2016 wildfire season was some time away. Services like infrared perimeter mapping, which would have helped firefighters spot the boundaries of the blaze despite heavy smoke, were not yet available, and vendors couldn’t or wouldn’t respond on short notice.
Based on 90 field interviews, the consulting report recommended joint wildfire planning, a single incident command centre, and that Alberta “open its wildfire coordination centre on March 1 each year, and be ready to respond to wildfires by May 1 or when snow has fully melted, whichever comes first,” CBC reports. A half-hour after the news broke, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry called a news conference to announce that it had already shifted the official start of the fire season from April 1 to March 1 and improved its weather forecasting related to wildfires.
“In December 2016, the government made March 1 the permanent start to fire season, allowing more time for firefighters to prepare,” CBC states. “The ministry extended forecasts from the previous one to three days to five days or longer, and said meteorologists are working more closely with wildfire experts to better understand how weather affects wildfire behaviour.”
AAF said it is also working to bring on wildfire planning experts as of March 1, streamline the placement of incident commanders, base its emergency response on a standardized international incident command system, and improve its use of a Firesmart program used across the country to minimize wildfire risk to homes and communities.