Fort McMurray’s wildfire a year later: ‘a whole of society effort’ - Canadian Government Executive
CommunicationDevelopmentLeadership
June 28, 2017

Fort McMurray’s wildfire a year later: ‘a whole of society effort’

At this time a year ago, the 88,000 displaced people of Fort McMurray began their heartbroken journey back to what was left of their homes and belongings in their fire-ravished city.

Located in northeast Alberta, the city of Fort McMurray was combined with Improvement District No. 143 over twenty years ago to form the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB). This amalgamation is classified as an urban service area. There are only two in the province: Fort McMurray and Sherwood Park.

On May 1, 2016, life in this city (considered a centre for oil production in Canada due to its proximity to the Athabasca Oil Sands) changed dramatically. A wildfire which is alleged to have been started by humans began pushing its way from the southwestern direction. At 9:57 p.m. local time, a state of emergency was declared in two neighbourhoods within the municipality. In less than 48 hours, it was extended to ten more. By 7pm on May 4, the order to evacuate the entirety of Fort McMurray had been given because of the rapidly spreading forest fire and the grave threat it posed to the community.

The fast-moving, raging blaze, nicknamed “The Beast” by Fire Chief Darby Allen, prompted Alberta to declare a provincial State of Emergency, the second such in the province’s history. The first was just three years prior when the floods of 2013 killed five people and displaced over 100,000 inhabitants throughout the Calgary region.

What had been Canada’s costliest natural disaster was easily eclipsed by the Fort McMurray wildfire. “This was the biggest evacuation in Alberta’s history, with nearly 90,000 people evacuated in just a few hours and resulted in saving the vast majority of homes and businesses,” said Shane Schreiber, Managing Director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

The magnitude of a wildfire can be grossly underestimated. However, once the size of the area affected, the number of displaced inhabitants, the emotional effect of the loss of property and personal belongings, the life-threatening circumstances and the provision of shelter, food and safety for the victims, the picture becomes a little clearer.

Dealing with loss and uncertainty on an individual and collective level can lead to hopelessness and despair. One of the things needed to combat this bleak situation is a simple ingredient – leadership through effective communication. This is where the public service can make a real difference in lifting a devastated community out of the peril it faces. This sort of disaster management is key to help contain a disaster and to provide relief, support and direction so as to rebuild and heal a community. For the residents of RMWB, this was provided by the Alberta Public Service (APS).

After the news of the wildfire broke, APS members and leaders of different organizations quickly moved in to assist. Many dropped their regular duties and began to work under the guidance of a Ministerial Task Force and public service leadership to coordinate activities. “From response and re-entry to emergency social services supports to recovery, the province was proud to lead the coordination, collaboration and co-operation of all organizations involved,” said Schreiber. “It took a ‘whole of society’ effort, from first responders and emergency management professionals to CEOs and neighbours, working together to respond to a disaster of this magnitude.”

Many came from different organizations including the Department of National Defence, Health Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs, RMWB, EMS and RCMP to help in the rescue and emergency response. Others from the health care and mental health fields, the oil and gas industry, contract suppliers, utility companies, emergency social services and voluntary sector organizations worked tirelessly over the days and weeks to bring relief to inhabitants and protect the infrastructure of Fort McMurray.

Those who served on the frontlines during the emergency response said afterwards that this was a life-changing experience for them. Not just because of the unprecedented magnitude of the disaster and the aid provided to victims and evacuees but the caring nature of people from many organizations who responded and helped the inhabitants to evacuate. Then there are those that came forward like Jody Butz, Regional Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Management for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, who was the Operations Chief during the wildfire. When asked what it was like to lead and manage a disaster of this magnitude on the local level, he said it was something that he didn’t ask for, but like all the other first responders, he “had a sense of duty to defend” his community. It was only “after the event was over” that he did truly appreciate the magnitude and impact of the wildfire.

As the disaster unfolded, the APS recognized that it was important to communicate with the 88,000 evacuees by providing regular and reliable information updates. But with no proper structure in place, doing so would pose a significant challenge to disseminate current and accurate information while making it accessible to the public. Recognizing this need, the APS leadership moved to ensure that communication measures were put in place. “We began steady communications to keep Albertans informed about the situation in the Wood Buffalo region,” Schreiber explained. “News conferences, information bulletins, social media, websites, call centres, emails, telephone town halls, and other communications tools were used regularly to inform displaced residents of the situation back home, as well as the supports available to them.”

Some of the public meetings were even led by Alberta’s Premier, Rachel Notley, and key ministers. For an hour-and-a-half on four evenings every week for over a month during the disaster, evacuees received information directly through the 17 telephone town halls that were held. Thousands received direct answers to questions posed to officials like Premier Notley and wildfire manager Chad Morrison about their homes, the status of the fire, when they can return, what’s holding back faster progress, financial aid, looting concerns and the like. “This was really a very innovative way of specifically getting information out to those impacted,” said Scott Long, Executive Director of Operations, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. The success of these sessions was beyond expectations with over 51 per cent of evacuees participating and over 520 questions answered. This initiative has established a new standard in what’s possible in crisis communications.

Due to the leadership spearheaded by the APS, a Wildfire Recovery Task Force made up of staff from across government and the RMWB was established shortly after the evacuation to assist with the needs of residents once they returned home. A voluntary re-entry plan was drawn up to ensure that the inhabitants returning to Fort McMurray were safe and had essential services available.

In looking back so as to measure the success of managing a disaster of this size it is important according to Schreiber, to measure in terms of what was not lost. “None of the critical infrastructures in the region was lost,” he said. “There only was a temporary shutdown of the key facilities and industries” which was miraculous when compared to the enormous size of the fire. Also, “only 10 per cent of residential structures was destroyed.” He went on to add that “tragically but nonetheless miraculously in the face of such a threat that only two fatalities occurred during the early part of the disaster.”

To ensure that the emergency system is stronger in the future, the Government of Alberta announced in September 2016 that it has initiated an independent review of the emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfire.

“We’re looking at all aspects of our preparations, response and recovery to see what went well, and what we could do better in the future at every level within the province – from individual preparedness to the support provided by the provincial and federal governments,” Schreiber said. “That’s what the independent review is all about – learning from our experience.” The findings from the third-party review will be made public later this spring.

Due to its exceptional leadership during the wildfire and the recovery phase, the Alberta Public Service Leadership received the Gold award at the 2016 Public Sector Leadership Awards ceremony presented by IPAC and Deloitte in February 2017.

But the work does not end there. Speaking on the first day of the phased re-entry, a month after the wildfire broke, Premier Notley said, “Today is not the end of the story. It is not a return to normal life and it’s not yet a celebration. There’s still a lot of work to recover and rebuild Wood Buffalo. This will be the work of years, not weeks.”


FIGHTING THE FIRE

While residents fled to safety, firefighters and other first responders stayed behind, working night and day trying to tame “The Beast”.

  • The number of firefighting resources peaked on June 3, 2016, with approximately 2,197 wildland firefighters, 77 helicopters and 269 pieces of heavy equipment fighting the wildfire.
  • The government deployed approximately 4,700+ wildland firefighters and support staff, 80+ helicopters, and 270+ pieces of heavy equipment throughout the duration of the wildfire.
  • The government received support from across Canada and from the United States, Mexico and South Africa. Approximately 1,222 additional firefighters and support staff assisted in the wildfire operations.
  • The Fort McMurray First Nation used their own equipment to build a fireguard around the Gregoire Lake Reserve to save their community.

Source: Government of Alberta


Marcello Sukhdeo is Associate Editor of CGE.

About this author

Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello is responsible for content strategy for Canadian Government Executive, IT in Canada Online and WRLWND and also is the host of WRLWND Radio. An avid technology enthusiast, he has worked on content leadership strategies for a number of industries including the public sector, life science, technology and defence.

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