Risk from wildfires outstripping ability to respond: Slave Lake report

EDMONTON — A report into last spring’s Slave Lake disaster says Alberta’s forest fires danger has grown to the point where it’s beginning to outstrip the province’s ability to respond to it.

EDMONTON — A report into last spring’s Slave Lake disaster says Alberta’s forest fires danger has grown to the point where it’s beginning to outstrip the province’s ability to respond to it.

“We are in a different reality as it relates to the threat wildfires pose in this province,” said Bill Sweeney, who led a review into last May’s blaze that incinerated more than 500 homes and buildings and forced thousands of people from their homes at an estimated cost of almost $1 billion.

The report found the wind-whipped fires moved faster than officials were able to communicate with each other or the people of Slave Lake. As a result, residents weren’t told about how quickly the danger to themselves and their community was escalating.

“I think people within the community should have had more information than they did receive,” Sweeney said upon the report’s release Friday.

Sweeney, a retired senior RCMP officer, said officials should have done more to tell people why the fires were becoming so dangerous — how close they were to town, how much fuel was in the surrounding forest and how winds were fanning the flames.

“That conversation did not occur and that should have occurred.”

The report also points to communication troubles between the provincial government and other organizations.

“Communication within Sustainable Resource Development and among responding agencies, at times, lacked planning and clarity,” it says.

Overloaded radio systems, power outages and loss of cellphone coverage made things worse, although the report says lots of in information was passed around through social networking such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some residents complained after the fires that they weren’t given enough warning and were forced to turn back into the inferno when they tried to leave town because they found that roads had been closed.

Sweeney said given the situation at the time, he doesn’t see how things could have been done differently.

“We did not see any opportunity to employ different tactics that would have positively guaranteed a more positive outcome that would not have compromised the safety of firefighters.”

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