Lessons learned from Fort McMurray wildfire help with B.C. recovery

Alberta is sharing lessons it learned during the Fort McMurray wildfire to help with B.C.'s disaster recovery response in the wake of a ferocious wildfire season.

'Fires don’t respect boundaries, so any assistance we can do to help them out is going to help us'

A stove sits among the remains of a structure that burned in a wildfire on the Ashcroft First Nation near Ashcroft, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Alberta is sharing lessons learned during the Fort McMurray wildfire to help with B.C.'s disaster recovery in the wake of a ferocious wildfire season.

Both the provincial government and the Red Cross have shared information with B.C. officials about the successes and failures experienced while fighting and rebuilding after last May's devastating fire.

The B.C. fires have been burning since July, and evacuation orders have displaced tens of thousands of residents. To date, an estimated 1,000 fires have burned more than one million hectares of forest. More than 300 homes have been destroyed.

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency has loaned staff to B.C. to help with the recovery efforts, said Scott Long.

The AEMA executive director said communications staff, public affairs and emergency social services teams were sent to B.C. as the province allowed residents to return to their communities, where some faced the tough task of rebuilding their homes.

Rotating in and out, crews have spent about five weeks working in B.C.'s provincial emergency co-ordination centre.

Staff embedded with their B.C. counterparts have offered advice and sometimes "rolled up their sleeves" to help.

"We are the closest provincial neighbour to B.C.," Long said. "Fires don't respect boundaries. So any assistance we can do to help them out is certainly going to help us out in the long term."

Minister of Municipal Affairs Shaye Anderson (left) and Scott Long, executive director operations at the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, explained an emergency response exercise to the media in Edmonton in February. (Camille Feireisen/CBC)

He said Alberta staff have suggested ways provincial and local governments can better communicate with residents. Townhalls have been held with municipal and insurance experts, a strategy widely used during the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Alberta has also shared expertise about setting up a recovery task force that will oversee the physical and social aspects of rebuilding.

Red Cross improves on wildfire response

The Red Cross has also been using the experience it gained in Fort McMurray.

During the evacuations, and as residents re-enter their communities, the Red Cross has been partnering with mental health organizations to direct people to ongoing supports.

Kimberley Nemrava, vice-president of the Red Cross for B.C and Yukon, said her organization has been partnering with non-governmental organizations.

"I think the big learning is that community partnerships work, and we're doing it more widely than we did in Fort McMurray," Nemrava said.

The Canadian Red Cross is one of the principle aid agencies providing relief to B.C. wildfire victims. (Radio-Canada)

Nemrava said the Red Cross has also been working with B.C.'s food banks and the United Way.

It has also provided support for small businesses that could not operate during evacuations or were destroyed by fire. The Fort McMurray wildfire was the first time the relief organization provided aid to the private sector rather than exclusively to individuals.

Red Cross officials said they hope to avoid delays. Some Fort McMurray businesses said they had to wait more than six months for a second round of promised relief.

The Red Cross said it will improve an online registration system to get businesses faster help. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.