Independent committee reviewing Alberta’s handling of Slave Lake wildfires

Independent committee reviewing Alberta’s handling of Slave Lake wildfires

23 August 2011

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Canada — A former top Mountie will lead a review of the wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of people to flee in and around Slave Lake, Alta.

The provincial government has named an independent committee to look at how well it fought the May fires and the effectiveness of its wildfire management programs.

Bill Sweeney, one-time RCMP senior deputy commissioner, is chairman of the committee, which includes two wildfire experts and the former fire chief of a rural community.

“Hopefully, at the end of the day we will be able to make some meaningful recommendations to the minister on how he and his department might improve the overall performance,” Mr. Sweeney said Tuesday.

“They are anxious to learn whatever they can about the efficacy of their programs and their procedures.”

The Slave Lake area fires destroyed more than 400 homes and buildings at a preliminary estimated cost of more than $700-million. The flames also consumed 220 square kilometres of timber.

The review will also look at weather and timber conditions leading up to what Alberta Sustainable Resource Development calls one of the most destructive wildfires in Canadian history.

Mr. Sweeney said the focus of the review is on the fires in forested areas, not on how the flames were fought within the community of Slave Lake itself or how the government helped people who were evacuated.

“What this is not is a review of the overall emergency response that fell on that region during this terrible time when the fires actually did destroy so much personal and public property,” he said.

Mr. Sweeney’s committee also includes Bonita McFarlane, a fire science researcher with the Canadian Forest Service who is also a University of Alberta professor; Peter Fuglem, former director of British Columbia’s forest protection program; and Tom Burton, former chief of the fire and rescue service in the community of DeBolt in Northwest Alberta.

Mr. Fuglem was part of the review into the wildfires that devastated the Kelowna area in 2000.

Mr. Sweeney said while the committee’s mandate is broad, part of what he wants to focus on is the importance of preventing wildfires through programs such as FireSmart. The voluntary program encourages communities to clear trees and brush from around buildings and to include wildfire prevention when planning subdivisions and in municipal building codes.

Earlier this summer, Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight announced $500,000 in FireSmart grants for 320 communities in Alberta’s forested areas. The maximum grant is $50,000 to any one community.

The committee is also looking at the report into a similar destructive wildfire that raged 10 years ago called the Chisholm fire.

That fire broke out on the Canadian National Railway line on May 23, 2001, and destroyed 10 homes and 48 buildings. The Chisholm fire was in an area less than 50 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake.

The committee will look at whether the province adequately adopted the recommendations in the Chisholm fire report and whether it learned from that experience.

Sweeney is to submit his report, including recommendations, to the department by November and the government is to announce its response in January.

“The motivation of the minister is to find opportunities to improve the program before the next firefighting season is upon us next May,” Mr. Sweeney said.

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