Fort McMurray reviews not held back for political reasons, minister says

​Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier denied Thursday the Alberta government delayed the release of a critical report into the Fort McMurray firefighting effort to avoid opposition criticism while the legislature was in session.

Two independent reports into the Fort McMurray wildfire were hastily released Thursday evening

Oneil Carlier, minister of agriculture and forestry, left, and Shaye Anderson, minister of municipal affairs, fielded questions Thursday evening at a hastily called news conference. (CBC)

​Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier denied Thursday the Alberta government delayed the release of a critical report into the Fort McMurray firefighting effort to avoid opposition criticism while the legislature was in session.

The report, leaked to CBC Thursday, was received by the government in March and sat on the minister's desk throughout most of the spring session, which ended early Tuesday morning.

"No, not at all," Carlier said at a hastily arranged and shambolic news conference prompted by a CBC News story published and broadcast Thursday afternoon.

"As I stated, it was because of taking into considerations sensitivities around the issue, especially around the anniversary [of the May 2016 wildfire] ... and (to) have the opportunity to look at the draft and make sure those recommendations ... to see how we could implement them and implement them as quickly as we can."

Carlier said the province had planned to release the report from consulting firm MNP within the next week.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who lost his home in the fire, appeared to be furious over the timing. He renewed his call for a public inquiry into what happened.

Jean tweeted: "2,500 buildings were lost, including my own. How can the NDP justify hiding this report?"

A second independent report prepared for Alberta Municipal Affairs was also released Thursday evening.

That report, prepared by KPMG,  looked at how the province handled the emergency response and evacuation of almost 90,000 people. It was submitted to the government last month.

Five years for new radio system

The firefighting report from MNP found that the Fort McMurray fire caught officials off guard. The initial days of the effort were disorganized since provincial and municipal firefighters were unable to share information due to different lines of reporting.

They weren't even using the same radio frequencies, which meant they couldn't share critical information or help each other.

According to the report, an operations chief working on the municipal side of the firefighting effort learned the fire was inside the city through social media, information people on the Alberta forestry side already knew.

Carlier said it was "unfortunate" that happened. He said the report makes recommendations about how communications should improve.

He was joined at the news conference by Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson. Both ministers said the government is accepting all 31 recommendations contained in the two reports.

Carlier, and Anderson to a lesser extent, at times stepped back to allow senior officials to answer reporters' questions.  

Alberta is moving towards an integrated Alberta First Responder Radio Communication System, which would put all emergency personnel on the same radio frequency.

The province was eventually able to get 250 of these units to Fort McMurray fire and emergency officials.

'We have a huge problem, right?'

But officials say it will take five years for everyone in Alberta to get on board, because the devices have to be purchased by municipalities.

The government is currently using some interim measures to improve communications.

"We have a huge province, right?" Anderson said. "So to get this to every small area in the province is going to take time.

"Do we want it to happen tomorrow? You bet. But that's going to take time, it's going to take money."

The KPMG report noted residents received mixed messages the day of the evacuation. At a news conference at 11 a.m., people were told to get on with their lives but to be prepared to act on short notice.

"These mixed messages may have undermined the urgency for preparedness, and potential danger that the wildfire presented to the community," the report said.

Other recommendations include a need for the province to develop an emergency evacuation framework, to mandate the use of a incident command centre during emergencies and to build a state-of-the-art facility for the provincial operations centre.