Albertans deserve answers on government response to Fort McMurray fire

June 27, 2017 - 4:00pm

The NDP government hid findings from the reports on the response to the Fort McMurray fire in order to avoid accountability to Albertans.
The NDP government failed to explain the breakdown in communication during Fort McMurray’s evacuation and misled Albertans about the status of reports regarding the fire.
The outright cynicism of hiding findings, the fundamental denial of information, demands a public inquiry. The MNP report has numerous gaps that do not answer the core questions Albertans have about the initial response and lack of preparedness for the Fort McMurray fire.
Answers to these questions are critical for preventing similar fires from happening again.
Albertans want those answers. A public inquiry will help Albertans fully understand what went wrong and how we can fix it.
History suggests that early season fires are more common in the boreal forest between snow melt and spring growth, due to material prone to catching fire being in abundance during the spring season. Assets should have been staged in the boreal forest areas by April 15. The NDP government changed the start of the fire season by a month, but does that change translate into actual resources on the ground early in May?
It is still unknown whether any of the Fire Watch towers reported the fire, and if they did, when? Were the Fire Watch towers even manned? Why was this information excluded from the MNP report? Why, in these conditions, was there no effort to proactively reach out to people on the ground? A reminder to avoid ATV use or mitigate potential accidental fires? Why are expensive helicopters being used for fire-spotting patrol instead of lower-cost fixed-wing air patrols?  Do those helicopters fly all the time with a bucket?
During the time of the Fort McMurray fire, there was a lack of air tankers. They were staged improperly for seasonal and historical fire incidents. The MNP report has air tankers in 5 communities, but none at the base in Fort McMurray on May 1, 7 kilometers from the fire. The Head Fire Intensity Index for May 1 was highest around Fort McMurray, but the closest air tankers were in Lac La Biche, over 200 kilometers away.
The report does not mention air tankers but air tanker groups, which can vary from one to four air tankers, and those tankers can in turn vary in sizes, speeds, and endurance – so this information does not give us much insight. In total only four air tankers worked the fires in and around Fort McMurray on May 1, while five air tankers worked elsewhere. Nine tankers were working the province out of a total normally contracted compliment of 16 air tankers.
On May 2, it certainly appears that not enough was done early to try and control the fire from growing further. Only two air tankers went after the fire that morning, making a total of 23 drops that day. Near 4 p.m. one air tanker landed then left Fort McMurray for Whitecourt at 7 p.m. Why didn’t this air tanker continue attacking the fire until sunset? The other tanker landed at 4 p.m., then launched one more attack after 7 p.m. before departing to Lac La Biche, leaving Fort McMurray with zero air tankers once more.
The MNP report states that the May 2 fire suppression strategy involved “heavy use of air tankers”. In comparison to the efforts of 12 air tankers on May 3, it seems like Albertans deserve a more fulsome explanation. In total, only two air tankers worked the Fort McMurray fire on May 2, with three other tankers working other fires in Alberta. This amounts to a total of five out of 16 contracted air tankers working in Alberta on May 2. What were Alberta’s other 11 contracted air tankers doing that day?
With this amount of missing information, a full assessment of the response to the Fort McMurray fire is obviously incomplete. After the release of the two reports on the government’s response to the Fort McMurray fire, there are still more questions than answers. It’s clear that there must be an independent, judge-led public inquiry on the government’s response to the Fort McMurray fire.
The thousands of Albertans effected by the Fort McMurray fire deserve nothing less.

Dave Hanson is the  Wildrose Shadow Emergency Response & Disaster Preparedness Minister and MLA for Lac La Biche - St. Paul - Two Hills

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