Final Fort McMurray wildfire report indicates misunderstanding over seriousness of threat

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WATCH ABOVE: A new report on last year's Fort McMurray wildfire says the community could have been more prepared and senior emergency officials didn't grasp the threat the fire posed. Fletcher Kent reports. – Jul 27, 2017

A new report done for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) determined that senior emergency officials did not understand the seriousness of the threat that last year’s wildfire posed to the community of Fort McMurray.

The KPMG report, released Thursday by the RMWB, said, “technical language that started to emerge as the wildfire progressed (eg. crossover conditions, burn rate and inversion) was not well understood by critical positions within the regional emergency operations centres (REOC).”

The report also said the individuals in key positions with REOC didn’t fully understand what the critical terms meant, which hindered their ability to assess the level of risk to the community.

READ MORE: Report into Fort McMurray wildfire cites communications breakdown in early days

That risk may not have been appropriately shared with the people living in Fort McMurray.

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The report also referred to an 11 a.m. news conference where officials said it was going to be a tough day.

“At this press conference, there were mixed messages regarding the significance of the developing emergency situation,” the report reads.

“The briefing advised residents of the extreme fire conditions and encouraged families to have a plan should they need to evacuate, while also advising residents to carry on with their day.

“The inconsistent messaging and lack of urgency for preparedness may not have sufficiently communicated the potential danger that the wildfire presented to the community.”

Some residents have since expressed frustration that they weren’t told to leave sooner.

“It’s very concerning, out of the report, to understand that,” Fire Chief Jody Butz said.

“From a situational awareness piece, there’s lots of tools and information that we need to make sure we get to the decision makers of the time to make those appropriate decisions.”

READ MORE: Alberta to complete review into Fort McMurray wildfire response by summer

The Fort McMurray wildfire forced the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people and destroyed about 2,400 structures.

Thursday’s report calls for better evacuation planning, training and communication.

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The report said the municipality did a good job protecting people’s safety and noted that nobody died as a direct result of the wildfire. But it suggests key emergency leaders should take more training, pass on their knowledge to staff and use a command system to better co-ordinate how a disaster is managed.

Melissa Kellington and her family lost everything in the fire and they’re scheduled to move into their new home by the end of August. Kellington was at home with her two young daughters when the wildfire spread into the city.

“It was very overwhelming, a lot of emotions,” she recalled. “It was crazy.”

“It looked like a normal day and then all of a sudden it got darker. My mother-in-law was at school and she’s the one who told us, ‘You might want to get ready to go’ and so we did.”

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She agrees with the report’s findings that stronger communication was needed.

“There wasn’t enough warning, for sure,” Kellington said. “Personally, I think it was getting close.

“We should have been out probably on the Sunday, not Tuesday… There wouldn’t have been as much chaos that day.”

She thinks the report and its recommendations are a good first step, but hopes to see changes implemented.

“It’s good to say,” Kellington said, “but you just want to see it happen.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Was the evacuation called at the right time? 

Mayor Melissa Blake said the municipality accepts all of the recommendations.

“We are committed to continuous learning and improvement,” Blake said.

“We welcome the recommendations within this report and are committed to their implementation, while building a stronger and more resilient region.”

The report said in the years leading up to the fire, very little was spent on wildfire prevention programs but since the disaster, Alberta and the Red Cross have pledged $14 million for FireSmart mitigation efforts.

Blake said other communities in Canada facing the threat of wildfires can learn from Fort McMurray’s experience by stepping up prevention work such as clearing trees and brush from around homes.

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Blake said there was pushback from residents about tree-clearing before the disaster that torched more than 2,500 homes and caused $3.6 billion in insured property damage. But since the fire, people have become more open to the idea.

“Unfortunately what we have experienced in the community is that when you take trees off of the greenbelt people get quite concerned and agitated by it,” Blake said Thursday. “Fire-smarting is absolutely a critical component to helping to mitigate.”

READ MORE: Alberta braces for start of wildfire season 

Two reports, released last month, revealed there were communication breakdowns between provincial and regional fire crews – and that the municipality found out through social media the wildfire was entering Fort McMurray.

It also found contingency plans were not prioritized and there were mixed messages about whether residents should evacuate.

The cost of the latest report is $246,000.

The Alberta government said the report aligns with the two reviews it commissioned to look at the province’s response to the fire.

“We accepted all 31 recommendations made by those two reviews and are actively working to implement them,” Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Oneil Carlier said. “We are pleased to see that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is following our lead and has committed to implementing the recommendations made in the independent review of their response.”

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— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News and John Cotter, The Canadian Press 

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