Slave Lake Fire of 2011

Dec 15, 2011

Material Tragedy, Human Triumph

Mother Nature was on the warpath in 2011. From the beginning of January ‘till the end of December, there were hundreds of ­­calamities around the world – perhaps none so dramatic and ­­devastating as the ­Japanese earthquake/tsunami that struck in March.

An aerial view of Slake Lake Fire

Two months later, on May 15, residents of a small Northern Alberta town were facing their own disaster as a wildfire eventually engulfed the town of Slave Lake, leaving approximately 730 people homeless.

After months of investigation, authorities now believe the fire was originally set by an arsonist. The case has been handed over to the RCMP by Alberta’s Minister of Sustainable Resources. According the Minister, “Our investigation eliminated all natural, industrial or accidental causes. We know there was no lightning at that site, no power line malfunction and no campfire located at that site, so a process of elimination gets us to the only reasonable conclusion.”

The town had just over 7,000 residents when the fire broke out. All were ordered to evacuate when a state of emergency was declared. Some 12 guelling days later, the firefighter crews left, returning to their own communities across Alberta and the rest of the country.

All in all, an estimated 1,400 firefighters deployed, along with 170 helicopters and tankers. The original damage estimate was $700 million, with the final tally looking closer to $1.8 billion! Approximately 500 buildings in the town were completely destroyed or severely damaged.

Miraculously, there was just one loss of life – a helicopter pilot who crashed while battling the blaze.

While the Slave Lake fire was a particularly devastating (possibly man-made) event, the fact is that wildfires are all too common in Canada. Nearly 9,000 such fires occur every year across the country, and collectively burn two million hectares of land. In Alberta alone, by mid-May 2011, over 100 wildfires were burning across the province – including 23 that were considered “out of control,” with the majority of the fires in the Lesser Slave Lake area, where 15 were burning out of control. In Alberta, in less than five months, over 105,000 hectares had been burned.

So what happened at Slave Lake that allowed this fire to encroach so quickly on the town? Were enough protective measures in place? What are the “lessons” from Slave Lake that need to be considered by community safety planners?

Community-Based Protection Programs
Regardless of that fire’s cause, the proximity of towns like Slave Lake to the wildland is the element that poses the greatest risk. Wildfires that involve buildings and wildland vegetation simultaneously are known as interface fires. Such fires present unique challenges and obstacles that must be addressed through practical, proactive, community-based solutions. A body of knowledge has been built up around this notion of WUI (Wildland-Urban Interface).

A practical, proactive and community-based program was, in fact, already being promoted in Alberta in mid May.

The Partners in Protection’s (PiP) FireSmart program, supported by the Alberta government was already available for communities to implement. PiP is a multi-disciplinary partnership committed to raising awareness, providing information, and developing forums with a view to encouraging proactive, community-based initiatives. FireSmart is the Canadian ­version of the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise program that aims to mitigate WUI risks in three parts: fuel reduction programs; enhanced property standards; and effective fire suppression solutions. NFPA and PiP earlier in 2011 signed a ­Memorandum of Understanding to further promote WUI risk reduction efforts across Canada.

Another program that makes a lot of sense for communities in proximity to ­wildland was created by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. That program, called Ready, Set, Go! uses firefighters to teach individuals who live in high risk wildfire areas and WUI communities how to best prepare themselves and their properties against fire threats. Ready, Set, Go! works in complimentary and collaborative fashion with FireSmart and other existing wildland fire public education efforts. According to the IAFC, the Ready, Set, Go! program “amplifies their messages to individuals to better achieve the common goal we all share of fire-adapted communities… The RSG Program provides the implementation guidance, background knowledge, and presentation tools to assist fire departments in delivering the program message.”

In promoting these community-based programs in Canada, the NFPA’s Canadian Office has encouraged provincial leaders to develop province-wide policies adopting the programs formally to ensure consistent and effective implementation. “Without a clear provincial policy mandate in any of these areas, the default responsibility rests with each municipality”, laments Sean Tracey, Canadian Director of the NFPA.

In a written submission to the Slave Lake Review Panel, Tracey recommends a provincial requirement for all communities to complete a risk assessment for WUI fires. “This would include assessing the topography as well the suppression capabilities available in the region. The region would then be required to make this information available to the public such that they can make informed decisions on their own protection and on home purchase.” He also says this risk assessment plan should incorporate a “community level mitigation strategy.”

Programs such as the various initiatives referred to will be instrumental in supporting communities as they prepare themselves to be resilient to the effects of WUI. Any program that encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others in the effort to protect people and property from the risk of wildfire should be considered.

The Human Element
The Calgary Fire Department sent 120 members to Slave Lake to help the existing contingent of 80 Slave Lake firefighters. The Calgary team, under the leadership of Deputy Chief Tom Sampson, went to work immediately, working 18 hour shifts over the next 12 days to battle the blazes. Sampson had the incident command system (ICS) up, running, and coordinating the activities of firefighters and community resources within 12 hours.

As the response effort continued to take shape over the first few hours and into the subsequent days, Deputy Chief Sampson found himself in unfamiliar territory. The ICS worked fine but it was not designed to accommodate all of the challenges faced by the 200 professional responders and community based volunteers, such as the length of time people were required to be on the job in an environment where the businesses and infrastructure of the town were left in ashes. To keep everyone productive, basic necessities of life such as food, water, sanitation and housing became big issues. After a short time, not having a Tim Horton’s coffee shop seemed like an important missing piece that Sampson would have rectified in hindsight.

Also, the overall logistics of the response effort in the small, charred town called for resources that could only be ­supplied by a financial auditor who could keep track of the assets – what was needed and where they came from – when certain requirements (backhoes, trucks, generators and shelters) were filled by members of the community.

What really impressed veteran first responder, Deputy Chief Sampson, was the capacity of individual community members to assist in the response. “Laura was a woman from the community whose home was burned to the ground. She chose to stay behind in the community to help with the response instead of leaving for safer venues. Altogether there were 1,500 or 1,600 people who participated in the ­operation from the community and every one was as much a hero as any of the ­professionals.”

Any Canadian community that is in an area that could be considered a Wildland-Urban Interface needs to become what is described as a “Fire Adapted Community.” This is a community where all members understand and accept their wildfire risk and have taken positive and proactive steps to improve the safety and resilience of their homes, landscapes, infrastructure and community assets to withstand a wildfire. The more action the community takes, the more “fire adapted” it becomes.

Lessons Learned?
From a purely response point of view, it is difficult to say if there were lessons to be learned in Slave Lake in mid-May.

Deputy Chief Sampson concludes that “our ability to access the resources of the community – people and assets – was key to the successful operations we conducted in Slave Lake.” One take-away would be the need for communities to understand the resources they have and how to access them – like the anecdotal need for an auditor or the availability of coffee.

Perhaps programs such as the FireSmart Communities Program, which encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters and others in the effort to protect people and property from the risk of wildfire, should become government policy. The National Fire Protection Association recognizes that an element of municipal programming, including public education and property standards, should be considered in future. The property standards idea would set out principles around community development but also specify building design standards and property maintenance standards for individual structures, depending on the risk categorization of the area.

According to the NFPA, a follow-on component of a hazard assessment strategy would be to “codify” the requirement for enhanced building standards in high risk regions. This is a more difficult task than it seems as it likely will run afoul of provincial safety codes, but the gravity of the potential for WUI disasters, as highlighted by the Slave Lake fire, dictates that the issue be addressed head on even if it contravenes non-public safety interests or commercial special interests.

As NFPA’s Tracey states, “this is analogous to seismic provisions in the building code – if you build in a high risk area, then you must build to a higher standard. There are standards available from NFPA that communities can choose to be adopted or adapted into municipal bylaws at the local level. These are NFPA 1141, Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Suburban and Rural Areas (2012 edition), and the Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire, (2012 edition). Both model building codes in the U.S. have ­provisions that require enhanced building standards in high risk WUI areas.”

Wildfires that threaten Wildland-Urban Interface communities are destructive not just to homes and the eco-system but also to utilities such as drinking water and electricity. They disrupt daily life by closing roads and businesses, are a threat to the lives of responders, and are a significant drain on local and federal budgets. The Fire Adapted Communities initiative will provide a resource for residents, businesses and government to implement community-wide plans to address various wildfire threats and concerns.

Edward R. Myers, Editor FrontLine Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2011