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Saturday, May 7, 2016

Fort McMurray - A Miracle No-one Was Killed in the Fire

Why wasn't the evacuation ordered
at least 24 hours earlier?

After escaping Fort McMurray with little more than the clothes on their backs, some evacuees are questioning when outside officials stepped in to help.

“I feel like the municipality can try but we only have so much,” Crystal Mercredi, who lives in the Thickwood neighbourhood, said. “We’re not close to anything. They can’t send in things right away and I understand that, but this was day three!”

On Sunday, residents of Gregoire were told to be ready to evacuate on short notice due to a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray. On Monday, evacuation orders were issued for Prairie Creek and the Centennial Trailer Park. Shelter-in-place orders were issued for other communities. The fire doubled in size Monday. Tuesday evening, the entire city was ordered out.

“This didn’t happen until day three! Why was there still no help from the province and still no help from the country?

“They knew there were problems,” Mercredi said. “They evacuated a community where my sister-in-law lives the day before and then they let them go back to their house knowing it was going the other way. The fire chief said, ‘it’s going to be 30 degrees, there’s going to be wind and it’s going to get worse,’ and they still chose to tell us not to evacuate.”

Mercredi also thinks the evacuation order should have been given earlier.

My concern as I watched the horror develop on Sunday and Monday was that they evacuate the city before Hwy 63 was cut-off.  They didn't, and people had to literally drive through the fire to get out of town. When you are close enough to feel the heat from the fire - you're too close! When showers of burning embers are falling on your vehicle - you're too close. 

Hwy 63 south was the only real exit for the 88,000 citizens of Fort McMurray. The road north goes only to the oil fields and could not support more than a few thousand people at best. Consequently, authorities had to know that moving 88,000 people on a two-lane highway was going to take considerable time, and they should have factored that into the equation for when they called for evacuation. 

Waiting for the last minute to evacuate Fort Mac was a grievous error. It gave few people time to fill their gas tanks or gather important items from their homes. It caused excessive and unnecessary stress; people had to abandon cars, hundreds of them, because they ran out of gas; and it is nothing short of a miracle that people weren't killed by the fire.

The first responders, the police, the firefighters, etc., did an amazing job of getting people out of the city and of keeping the downtown core and vital services like water and sewer from destruction.

You guys are my heroes this week, God bless you!

“We’re the last street on Thickwood. We border on where Wood Buffalo neighbourhood is,” she said. “That street had just been told they were on mandatory evacuation and so they were putting us on voluntary evacuation, which we kind of thought was crazy.

“If they’re mandatory and we’re one block away, we should probably be mandatory too,” Mercredi said. “We started packing up. Obviously we were going to get out of there too.”

Tim Eaton is also displaced by the wildfire. He was evacuated twice.

“It was there. It was right there. And it was like, gee, why wasn’t there some notification before this?”

“I didn’t know where to go,” Eaton said. “On the radio, they weren’t telling you where to go. First they say ‘go north’ and then, ‘you can’t go north…go south’…we were herded.”

“I was listening to the radio on my drive to Fort McKay,” Mercredi said. “One of our local DJs… he was saying, ‘tell the police to help get the traffic out. We’re all sitting ducks sitting on this road and the fire is coming.'”

These concerns were raised with the premier and the emergency management officials Thursday. They say, considering the unpredictable nature of the wildfire, they’re happy with how the municipality responded.

“When you consider what needed to be done to convince people to get in their vehicles and start driving south – and of course the absolutely understandable stress that would occur when you get on the road and find that you can’t move – these are scary stories and everyone would be scared to hear those stories, but I think the public officials and the emergency responders have done a truly heroic job, they’re still doing it,” Premier Rachel Notley said.

“I think what we have to understand is,
within the space of 48 hours over 80,000
people were evacuated from a town that
essentially has two roads out of it.”

Scott Long, 
with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency

Yes, and one of those roads doesn't go anywhere.

“I thought that the evacuation notices and the mandatory evacuation notices were done as efficiently and as effectively as possible given the changing, dynamic nature of that wildfire. As you can see, it can turn on a dime and it can move relatively rapidly.”

That is precisely the reason why it should have been done at least 24 hours earlier. Knowing that the forest was as dry as it could possibly be and therefore explosive in nature should have caused an earlier evacuation order. 

Also, the sudden wind shift and increase should have been predictable. Was it predicted? If it was you knew about it? Was it shared with other managers? If it wasn't predicted, why wasn't it? 

And then, who was in charge? There were provincial fire fighters, the Mayor, the fire chief, the police chief all in some degree of control. Was Emergency Management there? When did they get involved? 

Was there communication between the various managers? Were there meetings? Phone calls? 

It seems to me that as soon as the city was in any real danger, that Emergency Management should have gotten involved and coordinated all information, including wind forecasts. Was that done? When? Apparently, not soon enough. That may not be very practical, but someone has to assume responsibility.

There is much to learn from this disaster, and there is a need for a major inquiry into how it was handled and how it could have been handled better.

Alberta declared a provincial state of emergency on Wednesday. Notley said the process begins with deferring to emergency responders in the affected municipality. She said Wood Buffalo did an excellent job and that the province was working alongside them. The premier said when people began evacuating to other regions, that’s when provincial emergency coordination experts stepped in.

Other evacuees understand why things went the way they did.

“I think it was organized to a certain degree, but I think they just did not realize just how bad this was,” Michel Godin said. “It was piecemeal.”

“I don’t think they had the big enough picture for what was going on,” he added. “I think now that they know, in the future, they better have something for a catastrophe.”