Ex-Mountie to head Slave Lake wildfire review

The provincial government has named an independent committee to look at how well it fought the devastating fires in and around Slave Lake last May and the effectiveness of its wildfire management.

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., last May.

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

Former RCMP No. 2 Bill Sweeney, seen in 2005, will chair a provincial review of the Slave Lake wildfires. (John Ulan/CP)

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," Sweeney said Tuesday.

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's Sustainable Resource Development Ministry calls one of the most destructive wildfires in Canadian history.

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 from the town.

"What this is not is a review of the overall emergency response that fell on that region during this terrible time," he said.

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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.

Fuglem was part of the review into the wildfires that devastated the Kelowna area in 2003.

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.