Reviewing the 2016 Horse River Wildfire: Key lessons from reflecting on Alberta’s largest natural disaster event

By: Alexandra Martin

One year after the devastating Horse River Wildfire raged though Northern Alberta, multiple reports covering a broad range of lessons learned and recommendations have been published. While the scopes of the reports ranged from evaluating the responses of the Government of Alberta to the future role of Industry partners in the region, there is significant crossover with the ‘themes; of each reports findings. After going through each of these reports, there are three key lessons that I believe are worth paying attention to. These lessons not only apply to how each government and private stakeholder partner can improve their emergency response, but are also tied together by a common thread: Industry plays an important and unique role in disaster response in Alberta; a role that is critically underutilized. These lessons learned are not unique to the Horse River Wildfire, but apply to nearly every type of major emergency that this province may face in the future:

 

  1. Increased Communication and Information Sharing is the Key to a Successful Emergency Response

 

The two reports commissioned on behalf of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, respectively referred to as the KPMG report (AEMA) and the MNP report for clarity and times sake, garnered a lot of media attention upon their release. Most notoriously, the MNP report produced an anecdote that in the media would come to define the severity of the communication breakdown that occurred in the early efforts to fight the wildfire. A nearly unbelievable description of the Fort McMurray Fire Chief discovering that the fire had begun to enter the community through social media- rather than from his provincial counterparts who had known of the fire’s proximity for hours before. In any emergency, information accuracy and accessibility is key to a successful response. Working effectively with stakeholders across all phases of an emergency is crucial as no one group will have all of the knowledge and resources to deal with a major emergency on its own.  For example, it was noted in the MNP report that efforts to move heavy equipment were impeded by the first responders lack of knowledge as to where critical industry infrastructure (i.e. pipelines) were located.

 

All four major reports- representing provincial, municipal and industry evaluations of the response- dedicated significant portions of their recommendations to identifying the need for both a unified command structure and common equipment and training amongst first responders. While steps are being taken to address such recommendations many of these structural fixes are many years and millions of dollars away from being operable. For now, focusing on the updating and enhancement of existing processes is our best hope to fill the communications gap. The report commission through KPMG by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) identified the Liaison Officer position as a role that can be redefined to act as a point person between the RMWB and stakeholders in the case of a major emergency.  A change like this could increase the efficiency of civilian evacuations, for example, by allowing industry to monitor and respond to the safety of its remote camp populations and giving the provincial government an idea of the size of the shadow population that it will have to accommodate for in subsequent allocation of relief services and supplies.

 

  1. There is a Need for Commitment to the Incident Command System

 

A key finding from the MNP report was that poor communication, specifically stemming from a lack of commonly shared standard operating procedures, was one of the largest impediments to an efficient emergency response. Similarly, the Accenture report, commissioned by the Industry Recovery Working Group (IRWG), found that the absence of an overarching Incident Command System (ICS) framework, along with varying levels of understanding its operations, created significant coordination challenges. A common system across Canada, ICS is a standardized management system designed purposefully to enable effective incident management through integrating facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications under a common organizational structure.  When used properly it helps ensure not only the achievement of response objectives but the efficient use of available resources.

 

Through adopting ICS fully there are two primary benefits that would be achieved. First, emergency responders would be provided with a clear chain of command, as well as a common set of training and knowledge that would allow for the easier combination of diverse first responder resources. Second, for external stakeholders, such as industry partners who are in need of consistent, accurate information in order to make decisions regarding the operations of worksites that account for a significant portion of the provinces economy, the ICS provides a standardized route through which information updates can be received. With all reports naming ICS as a necessity to fully implement, there have been some steps taken to begin developing the infrastructure needed to support the system. The Alberta Government announced shortly after the release of the KPMG (AEMA) and MNP reports that funding has been allocated towards constructing a new Provincial Operations Centre to better facilitate response coordination.

 

  1. Critical Infrastructure Must Be Re-Evaluated and Updated

 

In referring to critical infrastructure, it must be noted that we are referring to the totality of processes, systems, facilities, technologies, assets, and services essential to the well-being of Canadians and effective functioning of government. It is perhaps in this ‘theme’ of recommendations more so than anywhere else that we can clearly see the role industry needs to play in emergency response and preparedness. It is almost impossible to overstate the magnitude of impact the oil and gas industry has on Alberta, especially in the RMWB. When addressing emergencies in the complex, value-laden landscape of Northern Alberta critical infrastructure must be taken into consideration when weighing risks. Currently, the Government of Alberta has established five provincial priorities that guide its deployment of resources:

  1. Human Life
  2. Communities
  3. Watersheds and Sensitive Soils
  4. Natural Resources
  5. Infrastructure (which has major impact on public safety or local economy)

 

However, the MNP report reveals that part way through the emergency response emphasis had to be increase on oil sands infrastructure and industrial work camps (priority #5). The rationale for this shift was based upon the potential for significant economic impacts to the province if these assets were to sustain major damage. These broad economic impacts are not currently addressed under the 5 priorities framework. Both the Accenture and MNP reports recommend that going forward a new risk management framework, that recognizes the existing critical infrastructure in the province, be developed to emphasize a risk/consequence approach as the central policy. While clearly discussion around the values of different items will require engaging broad input from stakeholders, this re-evaluation will bring emergency response efforts more in-line with the needs of Alberta.

 

Conclusion

 

Moving forward, the RMWB and Government of Alberta should commit to developing a comprehensive regional response plan in collaboration with key stakeholders in the region, including industry which is a critical community partner, employer and investor in the region. While there are numerous lessons to be pulled from the the KMPG, MNP and Accenture reports three stand above the rest. First, increased communication and information sharing is the key to a successful emergency response. This requires both a shared command structure as well as common practices, knowledge, and equipment amongst first responders. Second, there is a need for commitment to full implementation of the Incident Command System to ensure that emergency response operations are standardized and easy to engage with. And finally, that the Province must engage with its partners to re-evaluate and update its understanding of its critical infrastructure and the role it plays in risk management during an emergency event. Through addressing these three key lessons Albertans will be better prepared to respond to future emergency situations with greater efficiency and resiliency.

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