One year later, Fort McMurray mayor applauds Red Cross wildfire response but says faster response still needed

The Canadian Red Cross says it learned some lessons in the Fort McMurray wildfire as the one-year anniversary of the disaster approaches.

'You want to do things better, quicker, faster and easier for people'

Canadian Red Cross president Conrad Sauvé talked about the organization's disaster relief efforts in Fort McMurray Monday. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The Canadian Red Cross says it learned some lessons in the Fort McMurray wildfire as the one-year anniversary of the disaster approaches.

As the organization's leadership gathered in Fort McMurray ahead of the one-year anniversary Monday, its president, Conrad Sauvé, mostly focused on the positives of the response. But Sauvé suggested there was room for improvement.

"I think this is unprecedented. There are a lot of learnings for the Red Cross on this," Sauvé said.

The aid agency said it's using online tools to register aid applicants instead of having them line up for hours at walk-in centres. 

The Canadian Red Cross also learned the value of having applicants register immediately following evacuation as this inadvertently allowed the Red Cross to follow up with residents who didn't returned after Canada's largest wildfire evacuation.

Sauvé said it will apply these lessons to future disaster responses.

The aid agency announced Monday it has spent or committed 75 per cent of the $323 million in private donations and matching grants it received for wildfire relief.

May's wildfire was the largest fire evacuation in the country's history.

Many of the more than 80,000 people who fled the city relied on the Red Cross during the month-long mandatory evacuation, as well as in the months afterwards.

The Red Cross considers the Fort McMurray wildfire Canada's first national emergency in which relief needed to be distributed across the country because evacuees fled to many provinces and territories.

The relief fundraising effort was also one of the largest electronic transfers of money in history, according to the Red Cross.

Some aid recipients complained in the months after the wildfire that more help was still needed, saying it took weeks to receive money. Some businesses have complained that relief was too slow to arrive.

Fort McMurray small business owner Chris Hall said it's taken too long for him and others to receive assistance from the Red Cross and the Wood Buffalo municipality. 1:35

Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake applauded the Red Cross during her speech Monday but said organizations like the Red Cross and the municipality can always respond quicker to victims' needs.

Blake was answering a question from CBC News about what could be improved about the Red Cross response.

"The question on what you can do differently? I wouldn't have a wildfire in the first place," Blake said. "But if it does happen, you want to do things better, quicker, faster and easier for people."

Red Cross wildfire relief breakdown

  • $323 in total donations and matching government grants

  • $244 million allocated or spent so far

  • $183 million has supported individuals and families

  • $28.5 million went to small businesses

  • $24 million has funded community groups

  • $5.7 million to pay for fundraising costs

  • $2.8 million for future disaster planning and preparation

The Red Cross said it has no deadline for spending the remaining $79 million and the organization will remain in the Fort McMurray community over the next couple years to support individuals and families.

"Recovery takes time and there's a lot of work in terms of psycho-social support needed in the months and years ahead," Sauvé said.