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Researchers reflect on the Fort McMurray wildfires

Long-term thinking, smart development are key to preparing for the next big natural disaster.

BY ANQI SHEN | MAY 25 2016

As the residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, prepare to return shortly to the fire-ravaged community they evacuated in early May, university experts are already looking at what lessons can be learned from the disaster. While much of the city was saved due to round-the-clock efforts of firefighters, early estimates put the cost of the damage between $3 billion and $9 billion. That high price tag presents policymakers with a tough question, says Toddi Steelman, executive director of the University of Saskatchewan’s school of environment and sustainability.

“Is it better for us to spend $9 billion recovering from something, or is it better to spend $9 billion trying to prepare, anticipate and avoid something?” she says. “The political calculus is such that we don’t like to think about long-term costs that we can avoid. We like to think about short-term things that don’t cost us money. And in some ways, that works against us.”

Toddi-Steelman_146In her research, Dr. Steelman, who has studied wildfires for the past 16 years, looks at what a community can do before and during a disaster to manage its impact. For example, a property owner in a wildfire-prone area may want to ensure their roof is made of fire-resistant materials as opposed to cedar shingles. Neighbourhoods might consider cutting down trees that contribute to “fuel ladders” – where there is a shrub next to a medium-sized tree next to a larger tree – that allow flames to spread very quickly. And, building fire breaks around at-risk communities may in some cases be enough to stop an encroaching fire – although Dr. Steelman notes it likely wouldn’t have made a difference in Fort McMurray. “Fire breaks wouldn’t have prevented the fire from reaching the city, but it can give people a little more time to evacuate,” she says.

Dr. Steelman is also concerned about where the next disaster will strike and whether vulnerable communities are prepared. She notes that it is reasonable to expect more large fires like the one that swept through Fort McMurray as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change. Yet wildfires are not in and of themselves bad, she says, adding that Canada has done well compared to the United States by allowing fires to play their ecological role when lives are not threatened. “We have ecological systems that have evolved to burn and it’s a really important part of what maintains their health. What is new is that we have people living in what’s called the ‘wildfire urban interface’, so we have to do something about it because we don’t want those people to be hurt.”

The majority of Fort McMurray residents were able to evacuate the city safely, despite there being only one major route, Highway 63, leading out of the town in two directions. A section of the highway had been temporarily blocked by flames a day after the evacuation order, and the process of twinning the highway to reduce traffic congestion had only recently reached its final stages.

Access in and out of northern communities like Fort McMurray is an issue that Harry Harker, planner-in-residence at the University of Calgary, has contended with in recent years. For six months in 2013, Mr. Harker was the acting director of planning for Wood Buffalo, the regional municipality encompassing Fort McMurray. Mr. Harker says he and his planning group had been worried about Highway 63, but their greatest concerns were around construction camps located north of the municipality, many of which were placed under mandatory evacuation until the order was lifted this week.

“If you’ve got 5,000 to 6,000 workers on these sites, and if a fire comes as fast as it did in Fort Mac with limited ability to pull people out, you’ve got a lot of people at risk,” he says. “Without much of an emergency management escape plan, other than we’ll fly planes in and fly people out when we’re supposed to – the lesson to be learned from this fire is, if you get the right weather conditions, you’re not going to stop it. We just don’t have the equipment.”

During his tenure in Wood Buffalo, Mr. Harker and his team worked on a variety of planning initiatives, from where to locate new camps and mining sites, to getting subdivisions approved and working with First Nations communities in the region. Along with the pressure to get things built quickly, Mr. Harker says there were other challenges, including how much forest to clear and how much to save.

“There’s a huge risk across the north whenever we put settlements in areas where we don’t clear the boreal forest back,” he says. On the other hand, “you’re trying to create as attractive a community as possible – you’re trying to get people to come not only to work but to live there and build a community. People are going to want to have trees, and they’re going to want to have forests.”

Photo courtesy CitySpaces Consulting
Photo courtesy CitySpaces

Mr. Harker says he hopes the fire in Fort McMurray will encourage a public discussion of how to develop more disaster-resilient communities, starting in the north and extending to other communities. “We’ve had a number of house fires in Calgary that have leapt to three or four houses, probably for the same reasons as the fires went through the subdivisions in Wood Buffalo. It’s just that you could get to them and contain them easier here [in Calgary].”

Another key issue Mr. Harker hopes the province will pay attention to is temporary accommodation. Approximately 80,000 people have been displaced by the Fort McMurray fire, many of whom are staying in evacuation centres, hotels, campus residences and other short-term housing. Institutions including the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, MacEwan University and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology have collectively taken in thousands of evacuees, providing food, shelter and other supports. After devastating floods in Southern Alberta in 2013, Mr. Harker notes, the former provincial government spent $65-million on temporary housing in the High River community, which has since been demolished.

“They created this whole temporary community. A year afterwards, when everyone was back in their houses or moved on to other locations, they didn’t leave it there if there was another disaster. They tore it all out – it’s gone,” he says. “Whatever we do this time, I hope we learn a lesson. We need places to accommodate people in case of emergency.”

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  1. iris / August 31, 2017 at 14:34

    One of the greatest lessons to be learned is that the firefights had to leave the fire and go far enough away from it to build a firewall. This would be at a river plus a road. Then, they, and the loggers that were called in, started to cut the trees down towards the fire. At first, it was a straight line but after 700 ft, more or less, they started to leave a swath of trees and started to cut on the other side in a circle, again leaving a hundred ft or so between the lines of the circle until the circle ended up in the middle. When the fast approaching fire whisked into the area, it followed the road of trees, round and round, forcing the fire to turn within itself as it circled into the middle. Once it reached the middle, there was no more trees to burn as it had turned backwards to it’s start. Poof! It was out.
    Second lesson: There was a wide river to the west of the town but it had no bridge. The river was, in itself, a fire wall. A female firefighter found a part of the river that was down only several inches, built it up by throwing rocks high enough and wide enough to take a firetruck across…cause it could no longer outrun the fire. Cars were directed to drive across the same spot using wood planks where necessary. But, there should have been a bridge RIGHT AT THE TOWN.