A new wildfire report suggests mix messages, lack of communication and unified command hindered the RMWB’s response to the Horse River Wildfire.
On Thursday, the municipality released the 178-page report, Lessons Learned and Recommendation from the 2016 Horse River Wildfire, conducted by KPMG looking at the local response to the wildfire and recovery.
In the days leading up to the evacuation, the report notes Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC) was activated properly, however, they lacked authority structure.
“Unified command per the ICS Canada model was not established quickly enough between the RMWB and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in order to enable common situational awareness, establish a common set of objectives and develop a single, coordinated series of Incident Action Plans,” the report said.
It also suggests the lack of command impacted key response processes including the timing of the evacuation.
In that time, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry started up their command post. There was communication between the posts (REOC) but firefighter response operations weren’t co-located resulting in an “ineffective flow of information throughout the chain of command.”
“REOC was unable to quickly and effectively expand to meet the needs of the response, especially for ICS positions that would have benefited from intimate knowledge of the RMWB geography, critical infrastructure, and stakeholder relations,” the report notes.
Leading up to May 3, the wildfire jumped natural firebreaks, including the Athabasca river. The report says vegetation management activities, most likely, wouldn’t have stopped the fire from spreading.
However, the report highlights the fact these activities could have supported firefighters but they “may not have been implemented consistently or sustained over time.”
“Stakeholders reported that sprinkler plans for each community had been developed years prior to the Wildfire, but were not deployed. Sprinklers were made available to the RMWB in the early phases of the Wildfire response from the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, however, they were turned down initially and subsequently requested later on in the response,” the report adds.
“The use of sprinklers is not a direct attack when it comes to forest fires, it’s more of a preventative measure to prevent the encroachment of a wildfire into an urban interface piece,” added Fire Chief Jody Butz. “Sprinklers are most effective on ground fires and the grass fires, what we face was unprecedented.”
As for the evacuation, the report highlighted a positive outcome with more than 88,000 residents safely escaping the blaze.
However, just like the provincial report, it notes there were mixed messages given to the residents.
“There were mixed messages regarding the significance of the developing emergency situation.”
On May 3, the municipality, along with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, held a joint-conference explaining to residents to be prepared to evacuate but at the same time get on with their regular days.
“The inconsistent messaging, and lack of urgency for preparedness may not have sufficiently communicated the potential danger that the Wildfire presented to the community,” the report says.
The report also suggests some councillors may have also had tough times getting information, after receiving a number of messages from residents.
“Many members of Council were seeking updates and information from the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, however, there was a lack of access to current information, meaning Councillors were not always able to meet residents’ expectations.”
Meanwhile, the report says the municipality has taken positive steps in its recovery.
Speaking with multiple residents, they said the Recovery Task Force and Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee helped with updating the region’s recovery and giving residents up to date information.
The only issue arising was the time it took the committee to get up and running.
“Some stakeholders believed that this took too long and that recovery planning and activities should have been initiated earlier,” the report added.
Psychosocial support was also highlighted as it was offered to 2,200 teachers.
Besides this, the report focused on areas of improvement starting with training for firefighters. The KPMG report says, “preparations taken by the RMWB through training and exercising may not have been sufficient enough to provide the depth and scale required in a severe and prolonged event.”
The report also notes the municipality was a little disorganized after re-entry and in the months following with its staff.
“Staff that returned also reported experiencing confusion about their roles, what they were expected to do, and how they could support the re-establishment of operations.”
The report also talks about the need to enhance the role definitions of Mayor and council during a future emergency, suggesting they become “conduits of information to their constituents using Regional Emergency Operations Centre issued communications.”
Some other issues the report tackled were a lack of languages offered in the recovery and the early shut down of the welcome programs.
The municipality says they have accepted and will implement all 14 recommendations put forward by KPMG. These include enhancing support for disaster risk management, enhancing the RMWB evacuation plan, developing a Recovery Plan as a component of the Municipal Emergency Management Plan, and request to realign forest area boundaries with the RMWB’s boundaries.
“Going forward, I want residents to understand that implementing the recommendations in this report is not just a priority for administration and council but also a priority for me personally,” added Butz.
A full link to the report can be found at rmwb.ca.