Fire chief, Wildrose leader react to 'damning' Fort McMurray wildfire reports

There is no doubt the evacuation of Fort McMurray during a devastating wildfire came too late but no one is to blame, fire Chief Jody Butz said Friday.

'There are some hard truths there, and some lessons we had needed to learn,' says fire Chief Jody Butz

Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

There is no doubt the evacuation of Fort McMurray during a devastating wildfire came too late, but no one is to blame, fire Chief Jody Butz said Friday.

Nobody could have predicted the "unprecedented" inferno that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced the entire city to evacuate, Butz said, speaking about a pair of government reports that describe a chaotic, disorganized emergency response.

Any community would have struggled

The fire grew so forcefully, any community would have struggled to cope, he said.

"Obviously, in reflection, we can all agree [the response] wasn't soon enough," Butz said in a news conference from Fort McMurray.

"But in understanding the size and the scale of how this wildfire had blown up, for all intents and purposes, I think the work done from that point forward was incredible."

Butz was assistant deputy fire chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo at the time of the May 2016 wildfire. He was appointed chief in February of this year, after the retirement of former chief Darby Allen.

The reviews conducted on behalf of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry illustrate the chaos and confusion around the emergency response during the first hours and days of the battle to save the northern Alberta city.

The most scathing report shows neither the province or the city were fully prepared for the disaster, which destroyed hundreds of homes and forced residents to flee for their lives.

That review was completed in March but only released to the public on Thursday, hours after a source leaked the document to CBC News. 

'Hard truths'

A second government-commissioned report that looked at the evacuation and return to Fort McMurray was also released Thursday.

"There are some hard truths there, and some lessons we had needed to learn," Butz said of the reports. "We know the lessons learned."

He said the communication breakdown that left municipal firefighters unaware of the impending inferno, even as it breached city limits, was the hardest operational failure for him to comprehend.

But the bulk of the findings only confirmed what he knew were the biggest failings.
Jody Butz, Chief of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's municipal fire department spoke to media on Friday. (Marion Warnica/CBC)

'Shockingly arrogant'

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said the Notley government's decision to withhold the report for months is a disgrace.

"It's absolutely unacceptable and it's disgraceful that they would hide this report from Albertans when so many are waiting for it," Jean said Friday.

"This is the worst natural disaster in our provincial history. It demands more respect from the government."

Jean, the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, lost his own home in the blaze.

He said the province has deliberately attempted to "whitewash" its failures and mislead the public on the status of the report.

"It's shocking that the government would respond this way to the people they're supposed to serve."

He said thousands of lives were put at risk, and the people of Fort McMurray deserve answers. 

One of the questions the province has failed to address is whether evacuation orders came too late, he said.

"The people in Fort McMurray have been demanding answers about what happened for 13 months and they want to know."

​In a hastily staged news conference Thursday evening, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier denied that the government delayed the release of the findings in an effort to avoid opposition criticism while the legislature was in session. The sitting ended this week.

Instead, Carlier suggested the release was delayed due to "sensitivities" around the one-year anniversary of the city's evacuation. 

'They need answers'

The report, prepared by consultants from MNP LLP and wildfire experts from B.C. and Ontario, cites a lack of resources and communication breakdowns as some of the key issues that plagued the emergency response.

The report notes that in the early days of the fire, the two crews battling the blazes were operating through different command centres.

One crew chief realized that battering winds would likely bring the flames into the community within a matter of hours, but failed to warn municipal crews who were working on the perimeter of Fort McMurray, the report says.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean hammered the government Thursday after a pair of independent reports described the failures around the Fort McMurray wildfire response. (CBC)
 City fire crews learned the fire had breached city limits through reports on social media. 

The report made 10 recommendations, including a call for a joint wildfire planning team made up of senior forestry staff and representatives of the oilsands, energy, forestry and utility industries. It also recommended the creation of a single incident command centre and urged the province to get better prepared earlier in the wildfire season.

A second report, by consultant KPMG, examined the overall emergency response effort. It was completed in May and also released Thursday.

KPMG made 21 recommendations, including clarifying and documenting how to delegate authority in emergency situations.

The government said it has accepted the recommendations from both reports and is acting on them.

Jean said the government's secretive handling of the investigation is further proof the disaster needs to be investigated through a public inquiry. If not, survivors of the disaster will continue to question what went wrong, he argued. 

The municipality has commissioned its own review of the wildfire response, an independent investigation which will focus on the first days of the disaster. That report, being conducted by KPMG, is due out this summer.​