The lessons of Slave Lake

As we approach summer, and another forest fire season, Albertans should welcome a formal review into how the province responded to the devastating Slave Lake fire last year.

As we approach summer, and another forest fire season, Albertans should welcome a formal review into how the province responded to the devastating Slave Lake fire last year.

The fire displaced 7,000 people and destroyed hundreds of homes and critical infrastructure in the Northern Alberta community. As concerted and committed as the rebuilding program is, it will still take years for Slave Lake to regain its stride — and its confidence.

The fire struck in May, and before the summer was out, the province had announced that it would review, through an independent committee, how the forest fire was tackled and in general how effective the province’s wildfire management programs are.

But the committee led by former RCMP senior deputy commissioner Bill Sweeney wasn’t charged with determining how the fire was fought in the town itself, how the emergency response played out, or how the province helped evacuees.

“What this is not is a review of the overall emergency response that fell on that region during this terrible time when the fires actually did destroy so much personal and public property,” Sweeney said last summer.

At the time, it was believed that the root cause, and how to attack such root causes in the future, was the most critical issue.

But 10 months after the horrific tragedy, the province has finally decided there are other issues to be examined.

It’s about time.

On Monday, the province announced that international audit firm KPMG has been contracted to review how well Alberta responded to the disaster. An interim report will be ready by May 15 and a final report, with recommendations, will be ready by the fall.

Alberta Municipal Affairs spokesman Jerry Ward said the review’s intent is to determine how the government can do better in the future, not to lay blame.

So, the reports being prepared by both Sweeney and KPMG, as a package, will answer the kinds of questions that have haunted Albertans since the disaster.

And they should provide the province with the critical tools, knowledge and procedures to mitigate the impact of such incidents in the future.

Particularly for Albertans who live in isolated areas, this is good news.

About 400 homes were destroyed in Slave Lake, along with buildings that housed important community services and integral businesses.

A remarkable effort is underway to rebuild the community, but restoring Slave Lake’s sense of security and optimism is less easy to accomplish than nailing two-by-fours and laying bricks.

That uncertainty takes a huge toll, tacked as it is on top of the $700-million loss associated with the wildfire, the cost to the province to help the victims, and the cost to us all through rising insurance rates.

There are concrete strategies that will come out of the two studies, which may include proposals to:

l Clear a buffer zone of perhaps 500 metres around communities to ensure homes are relatively safe from fire.

l Establish building standards in at-risk communities that include metal roofs.

l Revise alarm strategies and evacuation procedures in the event of a disaster.

l Refine support services, including how, and how quickly, emergency funds and supplies are handed out.

In Central Alberta, our perspective on disaster and our response infrastructure changed dramatically after the Pine Lake tornado struck in July 2000. We learned valuable lessons and now have a response model that is designed to be quick and efficient. And it is regularly reviewed and refined.

A more complete review of the Slave Lake disaster should provide the same sort of model for the whole province, and the same sense of security.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.