May 3, 2021
Dutchess Sabovitch is planting trees behind her Fort McMurray home, trying to regenerate the forest that was bulldozed in 2016 to create a “fire break” intended to slow the rapidly spreading Horse River Wildfire.
“We used to have beautiful forests right behind the house,” said Sabovitch. “That’s actually the part that bothers me more than anything.”
One of the costliest insured events in Canada, the Horse River Wildfire flattened 2,400 structures and caused almost $9 billion in damages.
The fire started on May 1, 2016 and swept through the community, forcing more than 80,000 people to flee their homes on May 3.
Among them, Sabovitch fled the fire with her husband on a motorcycle, driving through ash and flames and gridlock on the only highway out of town.
“It was quite frightening,” she said. “I remember my husband being quite stiff on the motorcycle.”
Five years later, she, like many others, still lives in fear of fire.
“Just smelling a campfire — I can’t be there,” Sabovitch said. “My neck bristles.”
Recommendations and progress
So what’s changed since then?
Unless Alberta learns to be better prepared and more wildfire resilient, the public "can expect similar or worse outcomes on a more frequent basis," said a report commissioned by Alberta Wildfire, a division under the provincial government’s Agriculture and Forestry Department responsible for monitoring and managing wildfires.
That report — one of several commissioned after the 2016 fire — outlined 10 recommendations, which include: creating a single incident-command centre, increasing weather forecasting capacities, extending forecasting, completing wildfire management plans and changing the start date of wildfire season.
Christie Tucker, information unit lead for Alberta Wildfire, said progress has been made on all the recommendations.
“When we work on a wildfire now, it’s a little different than you would’ve seen five years ago,” Tucker said.
Communication is key, she said.
“We need to sit side by side and work with them to make sure that communication is flowing.”
The department works closely with the municipality when a fire threatens a community, she said.
In face of a larger threat, a unified command is established, with municipal, provincial and Indigenous leaders in the same room and receiving all pertinent information.
Alberta Wildfire also moved up the start of wildfire season by one month, meaning firefighters are trained earlier and the equipment made ready, Tucker said.
As well, the province increased fines for violating fire bylaws. Leaving a campfire unattended could result in a $600 fine, operating an off-road vehicle where prohibited is $1,200 and starting a wildfire could cost up to $100,000.
The province and municipality have been training together, Tucker said. During one recent simulation participants practiced emergency preparedness.
Indigenous leaders say they’ve seen improvement
Indigenous leaders in the Wood Buffalo region, which includes Fort McMurray say they have seen improvement to the emergency preparedness in the region.
“Everybody is smarter today than we were five year ago,” said Ron Quintal, who is president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Quintal was deputy fire chief with the Fort McKay Fire Department during the 2016 wildfire.
“It’s not to say that there weren’t plans in place then,” he said. “It’s just that they were poorly executed,” he said.
Quintal said he feels everyone is in a better position now to respond in the event of another fire.
Bryan Fayant, disaster and recovery strategist for the McMurray Métis, said since the fire, a number of McMurray Metis members have taken training with the municipality and developed relationships with emergency management services, he said.
That training was put to use when Fort McMurray flooded in April 2020.
“With the floods we responded pretty quickly,” Fayant said.
One road out
With all the improvements, one issue remains for residents — there is only one highway in and out of Fort McMurray.
The image of thousands of people trapped in gridlock while trying to escape the flames back in 2016 remains seared on the minds of residents.
The community is better-positioned for an emergency than it has been in the past but without another road out of town, “we’re trying to fit a hot dog through a Life Savers,” said Marty Giles, a former member of the municipality’s recovery committee.
Had there been another road out along the route highlighted with the East Clearwater Highway, a ring road that would connect northern communities like Fort McKay to Highway 881.
“It would’ve been slow, … but they would’ve not been ashes and embers,” he said Giles, who lost his timber frame home in the fire and has rebuilt his home using stone, and a clay roof.
“The number one thing that will make our community way more bullet proof than it is right now is that highway.”
The province is currently studying the economic impact of a ring road, but Tany Yao, a member of the legislative assembly, said the $1.5-billion cost may be prohibitive.
“Let’s not let the wildfire of 2016 define us."
— Wood Buffalo fire Chief Jody Butz
"My reality check is certainly the fact that I look at provincial and federal budgets, that there isn’t a lot of money to spend on these things,” Yao said.
Although there is only one road out, the regional emergency management plan accounts for that, said Wood Buffalo fire Chief Jody Butz.
‘Much better than we were’
“We are much better than we were five years ago and I can say that with 100-per-cent confidence,” Butz said.
Since the wildfire, planning is specific to the 17 communities and neighbourhoods. Each plan identifies unique hazards, recognition of demographics and unique evacuation plans.
The municipality has put a heavy emphasis on FireSmart programming in the area such as thinning trees in high-risk areas and educating homeowners on fire prevention.
Forecasters are predicting damp, cool weather for the region this spring, Tucker said.
“I know it sort of ruins people’s spring plans,” she said. “But it makes a firefighter pretty happy.”
It could also help new trees take root.
That would be good for Sabovitch, who has planted a handful of coniferous saplings where the forest used to be behind her home.
She doesn’t anticipate they'll grow fast enough for her to enjoy. But she’s hoping they'll be there for future generations.