Little could be done differently to save the northern Alberta town of Slave Lake from last’s year devastating wildfire, concludes a report into the province’s response to the fire.

"Our conclusion is we did not see any opportunity to employ other tactics to guarantee a different outcome without comprising responder safety," said committee chair Bill Sweeney.

The May 15, 2011 fire destroyed nearly one-third of the town, making it the second costliest disaster in Canadian history, with an estimated $742 million in insurance claims.

'It was agonizing to come to this conclusion.'—Review chair Bill Sweeney

The conclusion of the review was not easy to reach, Sweeney said.

The committee had to rely on experts who had strongly held but opposing views, said Sweeney.

Some experts were convinced the fire could have been stopped if different tactics were used, he said.

But the opinion of experts who believe otherwise was more compelling, he said.

"It was agonizing to come to this conclusion," he said. "It would have been nice to find something in particular that would lead to a more positive outcome."

The committee was unanimous in concluding firefighters responded to the best of their abilities, given weather conditions and fire behaviour, Sweeney said.

"The characteristics of this wildfire and the devastation it caused have never been seen before in Alberta’s modern history," said Diana McQueen, minister for the environment and sustainable resource development.

"The people of Slave Lake and those who bravely, heroically and tirelessly fought the fires were deeply affected by what they faced and have had to overcome."

Prevention is key, says review

The report makes 21 recommendations along seven themes: wildfire prevention; preparedness and capacity; communications; organization and incident management, post-wildfire business resumption, policy, procedures and legislation; and research and development.  

Recommendations include:

  • Expanding fire weather advisories to include potential wildfire behaviour.
  • Developing more specialized initial-response fire-fighting crews,
  • Involving more agencies and jurisdictions in carrying out FireSmart projects designed to lessen future wildfire risk and increase response capabilities.

Sweeney said two of the most important recommendations address how to prevent fires in the first place and how to get people out of the way once the fires threaten populations.

He pointed out that all 189 fires burning in the province between May 11 and 14, 2011, were caused by people.

"To me that’s absolutely mind-boggling," he said.

Some recommendations already adopted

Wildfire fighting is facing a new reality as forests age, more people choose to live in forested areas and climate change producing longer, drier, hotter and windier fire seasons.

Wind is the most unpredictable element of firefighting, he said. The province hadn't seen such strong winds that fanned the Slave Lake inferno since 1974, he said.

The province adopted some of the recommendations before this year's fire season began, said McQueen, .

It started the 2012 wildfire season one month early, on March 1, to preposition firefighters, aircraft and equipment in forest areas, and allocated $20 million to FireSmart projects in the Slave Lake region.

The province also trained 100 new firefighters for duty this year.