Fort Smith mayor outlines evacuation strategy

Fort Smith mayor outlines evacuation strategy
A month ago Fort Smith was on high alert. Forests were tinder dry and with lightning storms forecast. Conditions were extreme. The tragic firestorm events of Slave Lake, Alberta were fresh in many minds, and Fort Smith Mayor Janie Hobart invoked daily meetings of an emergency response team and sent out daily bullentins urging people to prepare. It was reported in the national news that Fort Smith was standing by to evacuate. With smoke in the air, the level of concern rose so high a few people even went to the evacutation site with packed suitcases. Mayor Hobart explained her approach to emergency preparedness and the reasons behind it to The Journal.

Fort Smith Mayor Janie Hobart has faith in her emergency response team and its ability to handle whatever nature throws its way, but expressed concerns about the level of paranoia circulating in the wake of the Slave Lake fire early this summer.

“I don’t necessarily think Slave Lake did things wrong, but there are things they did that are good and things that perhaps could have been done better,” said Hobart. “So we have to ensure that we learn lessons from everybody. Most people think that Slave Lake burned to the ground but it hasn’t. Only 30 per cent of the community burned. So you have to ask yourself, ‘Okay if 70 per cent is left, then what did they do well?’ You have to learn that lesson.”

Hobart believes that learning as much as possible from previous fumbles and victories is the only way to truly prepare for an emergency situation. That being said, she insisted there is no clear-cut way to handle any situation, due to the unstable nature of wilderness-based threats.

“We have to develop our emergency plans depending on where the danger is. There is no black and white,” she said. “It’s like the manual in a first-aid kit. It will tell you how to set a bone and what have you, but that isn’t its only focus. It gives you broad strokes on what to do because every accident and every emergency is going to be slightly different. You make a broad plan and then you have to modify it as the situation exists.”

These broad strokes allow the mayor and her emergency response team to understand the basic requirements for evacuation, without investing precious time in tailoring a number of plans to a variety of emergency situations.

Through understanding the key factors that remain constant in every emergency situation, Hobart said she and her team are able to react more quickly to threats.

The main factor the mayor stressed was the need for all families to have an emergency plan to prepare themselves and their properties for the worst.

“It is important to remember that while the town and all of the agencies that work for the town are responsible for the co-ordinated effort, people know there is a personal responsibility,” said the mayor. “If you have 2,500 people you need to move, it has to be done in an orderly fashion and while we can create the order leaving the town, if you aren’t packed and ready to go or you haven’t given some forethought to what you would do if you had to evacuate, it becomes a problem for us. So take some responsibility for yourself and your loved ones and ensure they are as safe as they can be.”

Fort Smith’s evacuation routes were outlined by the mayor, including Highway 5 to Hay River and by road through Wood Buffalo National Park to Peace Point to board watercraft bound for Fort Chipewyan.

The mayor explained that each has its own complications and issues, but this is to be expected and the emergency preparedness team endlessly works to understand and accommodate any issues that can be foreseen.

Hobart was critical of stories in the Slave River Journal, deeming it negative media saturation aimed at her. She called it “fear-mongering.”

“Everything comes down to my decision-making and I think that is something people are dwelling on. As I said, you have to take each situation as it comes and I really think it is fear-mongering when you say that we’re going to come in and flatten houses,” she said. “There are a number of tasks that would be done well before we make that decision, and that is very important. We don’t go from zero to flattening houses, and that is not what the paper said.”

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