AFTER THE FIRE || Fort McMurray blaze sends a searing message

Communities at risk of fire need to plan for worst-case scenarios. Here are a few things they need to keep in mind.

-We had to literally drive through mountains of flames to make it out … if we had to stop or slow down, we would have died in our car.

-I hope it is something I never have to experience again … sitting in standstill traffic watching fire coming towards you is something no one can imagine until you go through it.

The words of people who fled a burning Fort McMurray last year brought home to researcher Tara McGee a searing message: be prepared for the worst.


It's been one year since the devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region. In this four-part series, UAlberta News looks at how researchers are seeking to understand how people and communities have been affected, and how to prevent it from happening again.

FRIDAY: What we learned

MONDAY: The emotional aftermath

TUESDAY: The Impact on Indigenous communities

WEDNESDAY: A legacy of toxic ash

Fire is a harsh reality that other communities in the heart of Alberta's boreal forests need to meet head-on, said McGee. The University of Alberta researcher has, over the past year, sifted through almost 450 surveys from evacuees, along with interviews with community officials, looking for lessons learned from the wildfire-later nicknamed "The Beast"-that turned on its heels and took the city by surprise in May 2016.

"Do we need to think differently about emergency planning? I think we should," said McGee, who studies the human dimensions of wildfire and emergency preparedness in the Faculty of Science.

McGee, who has extensively studied wildfire evacuations of First Nations communities, was keen to turn her focus toward what happened in Fort McMurray and the surrounding Municipality of Wood Buffalo, after getting a research grant from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

Overwhelming response from evacuees

"I wanted to learn more about the wildfire evacuation from the perspectives of the residents and community officials, and to get their thoughts on what helped and what hindered the evacuation."

Her questions especially struck a chord with evacuees, who poured out their feelings online. The survey was circulated by Facebook groups that popped up as residents began connecting with one another, and McGee was soon flooded with responses about what they'd experienced.

"Within nine hours, over 300 people had filled out the survey."

And the comment boxes often left blank in most surveys were, in this case, brimming.

"They provided a lot of detail about their experiences, and a lot of emotion," said McGee.

The feedback they gave revealed gaps in the evacuation process that could be useful in improving emergency preparedness for other communities, McGee added.

Prepare for the worst

Communities vulnerable to natural disasters need to start rethinking their emergency response plans to avoid the problems that faced the Municipality of Wood Buffalo when the wildfire struck, she said.

"Although Wood Buffalo had an emergency plan in place, it did not plan for the scale of what actually happened," McGee noted. She added that although every community has a plan of some kind, it's become risky to strategize only for the most likely, commonplace scenario.

"Now we need to plan for the worst-case scenario as well. These disasters will continue to happen and we need to think beyond what has happened in the past."

It's becoming more important to build alliances with key agencies like neighbouring communities including First Nations, industries and provincial emergency management and fire authorities, McGee suggested.

"Have those relationships established well in advance of an emergency, so they are ready to call on," she said.

The road out

One of the most urgent needs McGee identified for communities is better road access.

"This was a major problem. Many residents in Wood Buffalo have only one road in and out of their neighbourhood, which created long delays," said McGee.

Fifty-three per cent of those surveyed said they had trouble leaving, with traffic jams a common problem, along with some people running out of gas or being unsure which way to go on Highway 63-the only way out of Fort McMurray.

The bottleneck continued on the highway, which only runs north and south out of the city.

"All municipalities need to have more than one way in and out."

A need to know

Lack of advance warning and need-to-know information was also an issue for those fleeing the blaze, McGee learned. Twenty per cent of those surveyed decided to evacuate based on what they could see outside, another 19 per cent from what they heard on radio broadcasts and 15 per cent from what they were told by a family member. Almost 60 per cent had less than 30 minutes to pack and leave, including 12 per cent who had to go right away, leaving everything behind.

As a result, many people were ill prepared, with not enough food, water or fuel to make the long trek to Edmonton-or, caught at work or school, they found themselves separated from family as they left the city.

Knowing when to issue a call for evacuation is a tough decision for authorities, and a question McGee plans to study further.

"It's important to look at warning systems and factors that influence when and how warnings are given."

The importance of community support

What did shine through in the survey was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude: words of thanks from the evacuees for all the help they'd received from fellow Albertans and people across the country during and after the wildfire.

"That aspect was quite incredible," McGee said.

"Be sure to highlight how grateful we all are to the whole country for opening their hearts and arms and homes to us," wrote one respondent.

About 70 per cent of those surveyed said they'd had positive experiences during the evacuation-whether it was being offered a ride out of the city, food and clothing, a place to stay or aid from government agencies.

It shows how vital widespread community support-the kindness of friends, family and strangers alike-is to emergency management efforts, McGee noted.

"Leaving Fort McMurray at the last minute without having time to prepare made the process much more stressful for people. They required a lot of help. But receiving support from others helps victims cope with situations like this. Many people want to help during disasters, so it is important to organize ways they can contribute in useful ways and for those who need help to receive it."

Towards better disaster response

McGee has sent her findings to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the Alberta government, and also plans to present them at several conferences this summer, gathering feedback from various municipal and emergency management administrators.

Her hope is that, in the face of so much loss experienced last year, the research provides a starting point to build better disaster response plans.

"There are important opportunities here to learn from the evacuation of Wood Buffalo, ways that I hope can help governments, organizations and communities in Alberta and elsewhere."