May 4, 2016 11:41 pm
Updated: May 4, 2016 11:54 pm

Fort McMurray wildfire: When is the right time to evacuate in a disaster?

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Wednesday brought more evacuation orders to parts of northern Alberta as the wildfire in and around Fort McMurray continued to spread and fires in other areas of the province caused concern for officials.

The mandatory evacuation effort in Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is the largest evacuation effort in Alberta’s history.

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READ MORE: Alberta government declares provincial state of emergency

It has played out in a much more orderly fashion than some may have expected, according to Tim Haney, director of the Centre for Community Disaster Research. That’s actually quite often the case when there is a massive evacuation effort, he said.

“It’s not like you see in the movies, with people running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” Haney said.

But Haney explained emergency officials have to be quite careful about when to order evacuation — not too late, but not too soon either.

If an evacuation is ordered too early and disaster doesn’t strike, he said affected people my take less stock in the seriousness of an evacuation the next time one is ordered.

“[Emergency mangers] have to make decisions about when the risk is imminent enough that it’s time to get people out,” he said.

READ MORE: Why the fire engulfed the city within hours

At the same time, if the order comes too late, people wonder why evacuations weren’t called for sooner. Haney said when it comes to situations when orders came too late, most people recall Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

But even in that situation, Haney said about 50 to 60 per cent of the population left home before the storm struck – which he said is actually a pretty good number of people in a large-scale urban evacuation.

In Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, officials claimed nearly all of the roughly 88,000 people ordered to leave home actually did so. And it appears not a single person was killed or seriously injured as a result of the wildfire.

READ MORE: ‘This is insane’: Dramatic video shows Fort McMurray residents fleeing raging wildfire

Despite the risk, it’s not always an immediate reaction for people to pick up and leave when disaster strikes, Haney noted.

“People will hear the message and then they’ll actually pass it through a series of different filters,” he said, explaining people will take into consideration what their neighbours are doing, whether they’ll lose pay by missing work to evacuate, or if they’ll even have a place to go and how they’ll get there. “Usually, until all those questions are answered, people won’t leave.”

Haney said he conducted research following the June 2013 Calgary flood, surveying people living in the 26 impacted neighbourhoods there. He said the surveys found a “substantial portion of people” decided to stay to see how bad it might get, while others just didn’t trust the warnings.

“It means the message is being communicated to people, but the importance of leaving is not being communicated to people in a way that resonates with people.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s like Armageddon here’: Fort McMurray resident who stayed in town during fire describes city

The high level of stress in an emergency situation can also impair an individual’s decision-making process, Robin Cox, head of the Disaster and Emergency Management program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, said.

Cox also added many of us don’t have an emergency plan in place when we need it.

“Most of us live in the idea that this isn’t going to happen to me,” Cox told Global News in a phone interview. “Certainly when events like this happen… there’s a huge interest in emergency planning, there’s a huge interested in emergency kits, etc. But that wears off.”

The disaster in Fort McMurray unfolded in what is recognized as Emergency Preparedness Week across Canada.

But Cox said buying that survival kit and coming up with a plan can only help you so much unless you take the time to run through what you have to do in an emergency — like the drills you do in school.

“It’s no different than if you study French and you never use it,” she said. “It’s not something you can do once and then when the situation calls for it, leap into action.”

WATCH: More coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire


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