“We feel very confident one year after.”
Those words coming from Fire Chief Jody Butz. Last week, Butz along with Mayor Melissa Blake held a joint conference looking back at the last twelve months while discussing what the future holds for Fort McMurray.
Butz says they learned from last May is that they need to be more mobile in their response.
“We were as prepared as any other municipality would have been, we can’t forget the size and scale,” said Butz. “The other thing is how the situation changed so rapidly given the fire conditions at that time.”
Butz notes the chances of another wildfire anytime soon with the same magnitude is very slim, as the potential fuel is either gone from the fire or being maintained with FireSmart activities.
“I’m not suggesting that there aren’t going to be any fires, what I’m saying is the hazard has changed and the fires will be much different.”
According to the province, since March 1 the Fort McMurray Forest Area has recorded two wildfires with a total area burned of 0.02 hectares. Both fires have been extinguished.
Butz notes if another wildfire were to happen soon, it would most likely be a grass fire which is supposedly much easier to put out.
To better prepare for this year’s wildfire season, Regional Emergency Services have added new equipment. This includes two more wildland skid loads and a wildland sprinkler trailer. The skid loads are a portable pump which can turn a “half ton truck into a mini portable firetruck.”
According to Butz, the sprinkler trailer allows firefighters to cover more ground, up to 1,000 yards.
“Our members, the experiences they gained from last May during the wildfire and that we stuck through together as a family has really made us stronger going into this year’s season.”
Population Could Return To Pre-Fire Numbers In Five Years
Mayor Blake says there is a very “reasonable” chance the community’s population could be back at pre-fire numbers within five years.
She adds before the wildfire; the population was around 78,000. Right now, the population is estimated to be around 73,500 after calculating the average water and electric usage.
According to Blake, the higher number of residents is due to the added construction crews coming from outside the community.
“Once the construction activities have subsided, we’ll have a regular community moving ahead.”
In the end, she notes the economy, not the recovery, will have the biggest factor.
“There is not as much investment in the oilsands that we’re expecting, part of that is certainly the price for barrel having a dampening effect on the investment but we’re still going to achieve about three million barrels per day.”
“The fire is generating new jobs in the region and building an effect on that and I think over a longer horizon we’re going to come out net even,” said Blake.
Blake adds the municipality is expected to see growth rates around one to three per cent over the next three to five years.
RMWB To Conduct Own Independent Review
The RMWB is conducting their own independent review of the handling of the wildfire and evacuation.
“We’ve recently posted a tender to get somebody to do our municipal side of lessons learned so there will be activity happening on our side as well,” said Blake.
She notes the decision was made after discovering the review would not include certain topics more related to the municipal level.
“I think the work on the ground at the municipal level is different from the work done at a provincial level or even a federal level,” said Blake. “The distinction I think, we’ll be quite valuable.”
Blake says support from both the provincial and federal government helped, but was far from perfect.
“As a harsh marker, nobody gets an A, this is our first initiative and effort but you would get a very strong B+,” added the Mayor. “The provincial government has given us what we need at the times we need it but we still have a long road ahead.”
Chief Butz says he’s had a chance to see an executive summary of the provincial reviews but wouldn’t go into detail over the findings. He adds both reviews are expected to be made public very soon.
This is the first installment that looks at the road to recovery one year after the wildfire