Poor communication/ relationships between levels of government, inaccurate information major concerns in Kenow Fire Debrief

By Lara Fominoff @LaraFominoff on Twitter
December 5, 2017 - 2:14pm Updated: December 6, 2017 - 10:16am

MD PINCHER CREEK - A 43 page debrief of how the Municipal District of Pincher Creek dealt with September's Kenow Fire has been released, nearly a month after the report was completed by Kenneth Kendall Consulting.

Overall, the report indicates the MD did not receive timely and accurate information from the Regional Fire Chief, Parks Canada or the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. It also indicates MD officials themselves didn’t take the initiative to do enough to ensure they got that information.

The debrief highlights the areas of Preparedness, Response and Operations, Evacuation, Stabilization and Support, Re-Entry and Recovery, Roles and Responsibility, Communication, Relationships and Resiliency. It also highlights the strengths, gaps and lessons learned in each of those sections.

Kenow Fire Origins and Progress

The report indicates that on August 30, 2017, late in the day a lightening strike in southeastern BC ignited a wildfire in a remote, mountainous area near the Alberta/BC border.

The strike was recorded by Alberta Wildfire computer tracking programs. BC crews could not mobilize quickly to try and contain or stop the fire from growing because they were already dealing with their busiest fire season on record.

By Sept. 1, Parks Canada began monitoring the blaze. Staff realized that because of the extraordinarily dry conditions, it could spread not only into the park, but also to the Waterton Town site.

Sept. 5 - an increase in the winds and the fire spreads towards Akamina Pass. An evacuation alert was issued to residents in the Waterton Townsite.

Sept. 7 -  just before 2 p.m. Parks Canada issued a mandatory evacuation order to all residents in the townsite. All non-essential personnel have one hour to pack up and leave.

Sept. 11 - the fire moves quickly towards the Waterton townsite because of extremely strong winds. By 11 p.m. it has burned past the townsite and moved north and east into the MD of Pincher Creek and Cardston County.

At that point the fire travelled more than 26 kilometres in just four hours, according to the report, or 80 to 100 metres per minute. 12 structures were destroyed along with some infrastructure.

Report Critical of Communication Between All Levels of Government and Local Agencies

The report indicates that in hindsight, the MD of Pincher Creek was reacting to the fire based on information provided by the Regional Fire Chief, Dave Cox, and the Information Officer from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

It says the information relayed did not convey the magnitude of the blaze and the speed at which it was travelling. Information was often several hours old, was inaccurate and not relayed in terms that the average person could properly understand.

A computer simulation was also relied upon by the MD, that indicated the fire would not leave the park at any point. It was wrong.

The debrief goes on to explain that the MD of Pincher Creek did not have operational authority over the Regional Fire Service- and because Cox was not relaying timely or accurate information to the MD, several requests were made for a senior fire officer to be assigned to the MD's Emergency Operations Centre. This never occurred.

Several days before the fire entered the MD, The Chief Administrative Officer also made the municipal building available to Parks Canada, whose officials took over council chambers to use as their Emergency Operations Centre, leaving local employees to use the kitchen and staff area as their own EOC. 

The report indicates that Parks Canada should have been told to pack up their operations and move elsewhere before the fire impacted the Municipal District.

That said, the MD was also criticized for not taking the initiative and issuing an evacuation alert several days before the fire even entered their boundaries. At that point, residents could have begun preparing their homes and moving their livestock.

And because Parks Canada occupied council chambers, the MD's Chief Administrative Officer could have also simply demanded timely updates from Parks Canada. Parks Canada also could have been much more forthcoming with its own information on the speed and direction of the fire from the time it entered Waterton Lakes National Park.

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency was not spared criticism in the debrief either. Officials it explained, were supposed to lend a helping hand, but badly eroded relations with field staff making decisions without consulting locals first.

Confidence Lost

The situation came to a head when Premier Rachel Notley held a news conference in Fort McMurray Sept. 12, commenting on the loss of buildings and on the status of the fire with information provided to her from AEMA officials working in the municipality.

That same information was not made available to the MD of Pincher Creek and it became “a major black eye to the local councillors and [a] significant example of poor communication between government departments and levels of government.”

In fact, at one town hall meeting, the report indicates the common perception of residents was “We think we were lied to ‘by the sin of omission’ – even the Premier knew more than we did.”

Residents also remarked that Parks Canada went to extraordinary efforts to save the Town of Waterton, but wondered “What did Parks Canada do to stop the fire from entering the MD of PC?” and if the MD was uncertain about how the fire was progressing at any given point, why did they not simply issue a voluntary evacuation alert?

Post Evacuation

"Could a hasty evacuation have been avoided? The answer is yes." But the report also acknowledges that although hurried and disorganized, there was no loss of life, so it was considered a success.

It also notes however, that many residents impacted by the fire that night, took it upon themselves to move their livestock and personal belongings without waiting for an official evacuation notice from the municipality.

The report indicates that many citizens in parts of the MD did not feel that they were a priority when it came to fire protection because resources were moved to the Castle area. Even if that wasn’t the case, it’s not clear whether it would have made a difference, given how fast the fire was moving.

When it was safe to return home, the permit process was also incredibly confusing.

“In some cases, several different permits were required to be filled out depending on requirements by the provincial department or Parks Canada where your property was in relation to the evacuation area. This process became highly bureaucratic and unreasonable.”

Conclusion

The report concludes that although there were no human casualties, opportunities for the MD of Pincher Creek to prepare in advance of the Kenow Fire advancing were lost, reporting processes were not satisfactory, communication between all levels of government was poor at best, and the credibility of local officials was likely damaged.

The MD could have and should have taken a stronger lead in obtaining information even if it wasn’t handed to them, and the weak relationship with provincial emergency officials further stymied the situation.

Both internal and external MD communications were insufficient, but did improve over time and all staff learned many important lessons, even though they had already been trained in Emergency Operations Management.

The report concludes that unless there is a sincere desire for all levels of government to effectively communicate with one another, this kind of situation can and will likely occur again. 

To view the report in full, go to Municipal District of Pincher Creek Kenow Fire Debrief

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