Lives risked over communication breakdown during Fort McMurray wildfire, councillor says

Alberta's government endangered lives by failing to communicate crucial information about the Fort McMurray wildfire, a local politician said after reading leaked documents.

'We could have had thousands of people burn alive,' Coun. Colleen Tatum says

More than 80,000 people evacuated from Fort McMurray to escape the wildfire. (user @ccccrystal__. (Twitter))

Alberta's government endangered lives by failing to communicate crucial information about the Fort McMurray wildfire, a local politician said after reading newly-released government documents.

"We could have had thousands of people burn alive," Colleen Tatum, a councillor for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said Thursday.

The province is downplaying the gravity of the disaster by emphasizing the success of Fort McMurray's evacuation, she added.

"I don't know what the definition of success in that situation is, but having people run for their lives and drive through the flames with their children is not my definition of success."
Colleen Tatum, a councillor with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, fled the fire with her husband and children. (RMWB)

In March, the provincial government received two independent reviews of what happened during the Fort McMurray wildfire.

The reports showed the city was unprepared for the fire. Poor communication between regional and provincial authorities exacerbated the problem.

For instance, on the morning of May 3, 2016, the provincial incident commander realized strong wind would likely blow the wildfire into Fort McMurray. That information wasn't shared with firefighters in the municipality.

Instead, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry held a press conference warning that fire conditions were extreme.

"To instill calm, residents were also told to 'get on with their lives and take their kids to school,' " one report states.

Two hours later the wildfire was burning within 1.2 kilometres of the city.

The municipality issued its first mandatory evacuation notice at 1:53 p.m., nearly three hours after the provincial press conference.

"If a fire is a kilometre and a half away, I expect that someone somewhere is making damned sure that every person is safe and secure," said Tatum, who had sent her children to school that morning.

"If that's a municipal responsibility and we didn't do that properly, the province should be the one to step in."

Hasty press conference

The province called a press conference Thursday evening, after a source leaked one of the reports to CBC News.

Oneil Carlier, the minister of agriculture and forestry, told reporters the province had planned to release the three-month-old documents soon.

"It was because of taking into consideration sensitivities around the issue, especially around the anniversary [of the May 2016 wildfire]," he said about withholding the information.

"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."

​'It was chaos'

Grigory Litvinov, who lost his home to the wildfire, said he's skeptical of the province and its plans for future emergencies.

​"I'm hesitant to say that I have trust in our governance," he said. "I won't rely on another evacuation — I don't know if I would follow evacuation orders because of what I went through."

Litvinov said he heard about the May 3 evacuation of his Waterways neighbourhood through a radio report.

"I got home, we packed things and 15 minutes later we had fire at our back door," he recalled.

"Going through the evacuation itself, we knew something wasn't right," he added. 

"The information wasn't getting out and it was chaos."

Grigory Litvinov lost his home in Fort McMurray to the 2016 wildfire. (David Thurton/CBC)

Wildrose leader Brian Jean, who also lost his home to the fire, is calling for a judge-led public inquiry into how the province handled its response.

"Those who lost everything deserve answer," he tweeted Thursday.

With files from David Thurton