Opposition leader calls for inquiry into wildfire

EDMONTON — Alberta’s Opposition leader says the government is attempting to whitewash the findings of two probes into the Fort McMurray wildfire disaster.

Brian Jean, of the Wildrose party, says the lives of tens of thousands of people were put at risk because the government wasn’t ready to fight the fire properly and was slow to respond.

“It wasn’t until local officials sounded the alarm and implemented a hurried and terrifying mandatory evacuation that only by the grace of God was successful,” a visibly emotional Jean said Friday.

“It wasn’t until that point that the provincial government treated the situation as the serious emergency that it was.”

Jean, who represents the region in the legislature and lost his home in the flames, is calling for a judge-led independent public inquiry to get more answers about what happened.

The Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives accused the government of not releasing the reports, including one that was ready in March, quickly enough.

“We need answers and these reports leave too many questions unanswered,” Jean said.

One report by MNP cites communication breakdowns in the early days of the fire in May 2016 as it swept into the municipality and forced more than 80,000 people to flee.

It recommends the government should be ready to respond to wildfires earlier in the season and better co-ordinate firefighting efforts when flames threaten communities.

The report notes that a specially trained and equipped wildfire team that was formed after the 2011 wildfire in Slave Lake, Alta., was sent to Fort McMurray to help, but it wasn’t used and left the area early.

Problems with radios prevented municipal and provincial fire crews from communicating with each other and with air tankers.

A report by KPMG recommends the government review how it manages emergencies and that it spend more money to prevent and prepare for wildfires.

It notes that about $153,000 was spent in the Fort McMurray area on FireSmart activities such as brush clearing in the year before the fire, which caused more than $3.7 billion in insured losses.

The KPMG report also urges the government to develop a plan for evacuations.

“Prior to this wildfire, it is unlikely that any municipality in Alberta, regardless of size, had considered or planned a complete evacuation of their entire community.”

The report also says people were given conflicting information about the threat on May 3, the day of the evacuation.

Before noon that day, residents were told an evacuation was a long way off and should get on with their lives. A few hours later, people were told they must leave the city immediately.

“These mixed messages may have undermined the urgency for preparedness and potential danger that the wildfire presented to the community.”

KMPG said Alberta needs to develop a disaster resiliency strategy.

“There is a need to strengthen disaster preparedness … and ensure capacities are in place for effective response and recovery at all levels.”

Premier Rachel Notley was not available to respond to the two reports or to the Opposition’s call for a public inquiry.

The government issued a statement Friday that said it didn’t release the reports earlier because it wanted to present them together and the KPMG review wasn’t received until May.

A report of a breakdown in communications between the province and Fort McMurray during the wildfire “is not accurate,” the statement said.

“What’s important to remember here is that this was a very unusual situation,” it said. “A very large, very remote fire in very dry and high wind conditions. The province and municipality worked closely every hour to ensure we got residents out safely and saved as much of the town as was possible.”

Government ministers responsible for wildfires and emergencies say the government is acting on 31 of the recommendations in the two reports.

The MNP report concludes with a warning that the threat of wildfire in Alberta only stands to grow, in part due to climate change.

“There is an urgency to address the recommendations presented in this review and to support the ongoing effort to implement improvements from past reviews.”

John Cotter, The Canadian Press

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