The terrible Slave Lake fire devastated that community, but it could have as easily been any other northern town.
It will be some time before the results are in from the analysis of the fire and, in particular, the reasons why the town was caught so unawares and had so little warning time. There will likely be some concern, maybe anger, and possibly for good reason.
It is easy to second guess the cause for the Slave Lake fire, and it can be summed up in one word; complacency – not just in Slave Lake, but system wide.
The warning system failed in Slave Lake. There was 24 minutes advance warning for the tornado that turned Joplin, Missouri into debris and rubble last week. The US weather service is saying with better equipment, their ability to predict tornados can be improved so they can give even more lead time. There was no warning at all in Slave Lake. In fact residents say the radio broadcasts assured them there was not a problem, that evacuation was not necessary yet they could see the flames advancing, obviously immanently dangerous, before their eyes.
Conditions had been dry for a time and were rated extreme. It was a windy day. That was the situation in the region – enough for a high state of alert. There was a forest fire near to the town. Apparently strong local winds changed direction and pushed the fire toward town. A fire generates its own winds, thus the term “fire storm.” With the community in its path, the nightmare unfolded.
Why is there not a series of alert levels – like the Americans have for terrorism? Orange alert, be ready to evacuate. Red alert, get out of town. There needs to be a much higher level of sophistication for such preparedness. And it should come from senior governments. But it doesn’t, and that is a result of complacency.
Our boreal forest communities in northern Alberta and the NWT are minuscule compared to the overall area. Even the current massive fire south of Fort Chipewyan, that stretches from Fort Mckay to the south shore of Lake Claire is tiny in relation to the vast boreal forest region. Nasty fire seasons come around very 15 to 20 years. It is easy to ignore the threat. But on a rare occasion, our communities do burn. We have to be ready for that.
In fact no community in the boreal forest is ready for a massive threatening fire, not in terms of preparedness, nor how to respond for the safety of citizens, nor how to counter. We get excited about it in times like this, but we soon forget. That is true of pretty much every single town and village. We have been saying that in Journal editorials for years.
In the case of the Kelowna fires in ’93, lawsuits followed. The amount of destruction in the Kelowna fires could have been reduced with better planning and preparedness, and that was what was deemed negligence in the courts. Senior and community governments were sued. And the burden of those lawsuits was huge.
Notice in the pictures of the houses in the Slave Lake fire, and even their town hall, most burned from the roof down. The images of the burning roofs are dramatic. Embers blown by wind landed on the roofs and ignited them. Yet no building code requirement for non-flammable roofing or siding materials exists in Alberta or the NWT in the boreal forest region. Information or advice on what materials to use is not even available. Those initiatives are up to provincial and territorial governments. They are failing to carry them out.
The other missing element in many cases is an emergency plan. That is left up to each community government. But not all community governments are effective. Moreover, in many cases in the north, communities have multiple governments and split authority. Emergency planning should not be left up to chance. Those initiatives should come from senior governments. They are failing to do so.
Almost all boreal forest communities are small and isolated and have limited choices for escape – usually one or two routes. The danger of thick hot billowing smoke that chokes and blinds cannot be understated. To start, it eliminates any water escape. An over-loaded boat in a wind when you can’t see or breathe is the worst place to be. Often a fire big pushed by wind, bearing down on a community, will threaten more than one side of town – cutting off more than one direction for escape – a bad situation if there is only a few exits from town. Solutions have to be tailored for every community’s circumstance. Yet little if anything is done to prepare. Again, the initiative should come from senior governments, not only to initiate planning but to develop solutions.