May 6, 2016 4:24 pm
Updated: May 6, 2016 8:17 pm

What gives Fort McMurray an edge in overcoming ‘beast’ of a wildfire

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If you’re stuck in an epic traffic jam, inching through billows of smoke as a wall of flame devours trees alongside you and you’ve no idea if your home or anything in it will be there when you get back, you’d be forgiven for freaking out.

That didn’t happen on Highway 63 this week.

“I was worried that people would panic to extraordinary lengths, and do harm to each other. That didn’t happen,” Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake told reporters days later.

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“It was slow. People were scared. And you can’t blame them. … [But] there was a great collective effort in trying to be conscientiously courteous.”

READ MORE: How the Fort McMurray fire is creating its own weather

If an inferno’s going to upend your community and force almost 90,000 people from their homes, Fort McMurray is pretty disaster-resilient — well positioned to cope, and bounce back.

As a “nasty, dirty,” “beast” of a wildfire tore through Alberta forest like kindling this week, tens of thousands of people and animals made it to safety and almost no one got hurt.

That’s not to minimize the damage: Two teenage girls died in a fiery car crash on Highway 881 Wednesday afternoon as their family made the trek south.

And those 88,000 evacuees are stuck in limbo, not knowing when they’ll be able to go home or what will be left of their homes when they do.

Many, Wildrose leader Brian Jean among them, already know not much remains.

“My own home is in flames,” he said Tuesday.

But it could have been a lot worse.

The regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray and surrounding communities, has demographics on its side.

It’s a lot younger than the rest of Canada: The average age in 2013 was 32, compared to a national average of 40. One in five people is under 15.

Almost a quarter of the population is between 25 and 35 years old (the Canadian average is 13). By contrast, only 1 per cent of Fort McMurray’s population is 75 and over.

Under evacuation orders, age matters.

A young, healthy population means fewer people who are likely to be vulnerable or have mobility challenges, says Ken McBey, a professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.

“If you have a more aged population and more people with challenges and disabilities, that makes it more complex for any emergency agency,” he said.

Fort Mac’s also more affluent: Median family income topped $181,240 in 2013, compared to a Canadian median of $76,550. But this doesn’t provide as much of an advantage as you’d think, McBey said:

“Just because you’re making money … doesn’t mean you’re investing it in emergency management.”

Medium matters: Communities like Pickering, Ont., which abuts a nuclear plant, have resurrected Cold War-style outdoor sirens, fearing a splintered communication landscape and the rift between people glued to mobiles and people tethered to radios will make it tough to reach everyone you need all at once.

READ MORE: Should Ontario invest in tornado sirens?

Alberta didn’t need sirens this week. Yes, there was miscommunication, and many people say they weren’t given nearly enough notice when it was time to pick up and leave. But there was also extraordinary coordination as travellers found each other online or through someone who knew someone who had a trailer you could use.

READ MORE: When is the right time to evacuate?

It’s also at the heart of a region built, if regulations are followed, with worst-case scenarios in mind: The energy giants operating there are required have emergency management plans and industrial firefighting teams of their own, Alberta Fire’s Chad Morrison said Friday. “They’re generally very resilient.”

Alberta Emergency Management has been in touch with industry people, said the government agency’s Scott Long.

“Most oil and gas companies have already started … thinning out non-essential personnel,” he said.

“In accordance with regulations, they have great emergency management plans, highly trained professionals.”

Equally crucial is education, McBey said: emergency kits, the drills you went through as a kid or were told to draw up with your family.

“Who’s the emergency management coordinator? If they are proactive and if they believe in actually preparing their citizens and stuff, it can go a long way.”

The community had been monitoring the fire for a while. Officials thought they had a pretty good plan.

“On the day that we were watching the hill treetops lighting up, that was predicted,” Blake said.

“I knew the time of day it was supposed to happen so we’d [keep the fire] 15 kilometres from any residents.”

Wind and fire and drought had other ideas.

“It so dramatically changed, in such short order.”

Fort McMurray’s wildfire “provides a powerful case study” for an emergency preparedness conference in Toronto Friday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale noted.

While ministers talked emergency preparedness in a Toronto conference room, that case study was adapting a tactic Canada’s military employed in Afghanistan.

A convoy made the cautious trek from work camps north of Fort McMurray, with helicopters overhead and RCMP officers flanking a snaking row of vehicles headed south through the burn zone.

“It’s a technique that we use to great extent in Afghanistan,” said Brigadier-General Wayne Eyre, commander of Joint Task Force (West).

“We are well prepared for this type of crisis. We will supply the assistance requested.”

WATCH: Convoy heads south toward Edmonton

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