Five years after the 2016 Horse River Wildfire triggered the evacuation of Fort McMurray, emergency leaders say many of the harsh lessons learned in disaster response are now reflected in protocols.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) has implemented 13 of 14 recommendations suggested by the auditing firm KPMG. Its one-size-fits-all approach to disasters, which was in place at the time of the wildfire, has been replaced with community-specific plans.
These plans include population size, localized evacuation plans, handling evacuees from other communities, wildfire response protocols and unique threats.
Conklin has a railway running through it, for instance, putting the community at risk to a rail disaster. Fort McKay is surrounded by dozens of active industrial sites, putting them at increased risk of an industrial accident. Fort Chipewyan can only be reached by winter road, barge or plane.
“We see communities that are better prepared to face the challenges of the future,” said Fire Chief Jody Butz. “We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last five years, but our work cannot end there. The harsh lessons of the Horse River Wildfire demand that we persevere and move forward.”
Other First Nation and Métis leaders are more often included in discussions and training programs. Janvier now has a volunteer fire department and Regional Emergency Services (RES) has a drone.
FireSmart programming plays a larger role in wildfire prevention. This includes thinning and cutting down trees in high-risk areas and public education campaigns on fire safety and prevention.
“Preparing for that risk of wildfire is a shared responsibility among all of us: residents, communities, industry, governments, fire departments and our regional partners,” said Butz. “The chances that you’ve observed FireSmart work in your community is really high.”
The only outstanding recommendation involves realigning forest boundaries, which the province has rejected. Coordination with local and provincial authorities has improved, which Butz said was demonstrated during the April 2020 flooding that saw Alberta Agriculture and Forestry workers integrated into the local incident management team.
The rebuilding efforts have also slowed in recent years. Roughly 86 per cent of the 2,579 living units and 22 commercial spaces destroyed in wildfire have been rebuilt in the past five years.
Out of the 2,246 building permits issued for properties destroyed on May 3, 2016, construction is ongoing at 324 properties. Another 35 lots were bought out by the RMWB. This leaves 320 vacant lots, with 29 in rural areas.
Mayor Don Scott said most of these owners are in disputes with insurance companies or developers. The most public example is the Hillview Condominium complex, which only had people return to the 214-unit complex last October. Others have left the region or never started a rebuilding process.
But, the mental health crisis in the region stemming from the wildfire, economic uncertainty, last year’s flood and COVID-19 will be felt for years.
“Anyone who thinks there’s not mental health issues isn’t in touch with the reality of what’s been happening in this region,” said Scott.