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Review of Yellowhead County wildfire response calls for more planning, provincial support

If every firefighter in Alberta had been working in Yellowhead County during the height of the 2023 wildfires, it still wouldn’t have been enough to manage the threat to homes and communities.

That’s one of the observations reported as part of a third-party independent review of the emergency response to flooding and unprecedented wildfires that plagued the west-central Alberta county last spring. 

The 79-page report by consultancy company 9Zero Solutions was published by the county last month.

It makes dozens of recommendations related to everything from the operational and emergency management and response to social services, the role of the province and Alberta Wildfire to mental health and community education and communication.

The county, composed of hundreds of farms and rural communities, has a population of about 10,400 spread across more than 22,000 square kilometres.

Of the 719 county residents who responded to the report authors’ survey, 678 were under an evacuation order at least once during spring 2023. Of those, 220 chose not to evacuate.

“[The county] is philosophically inclined to less government and more grass roots initiatives. Many residents expressed their choice to live in the community was based on this freedom. This created a situation where many felt resentment towards officials for being told what to do,” the report states.

A sprinkler sprays water over a field with cattle grazing nearby. In the foreground is the rear view of a woman in a red vest with YCFD, standing for Yellowhead County Fire Department, in white letters.
As wildfires burned in west central Alberta in May 2023, Yellowhead County Fire Department set up large sprinklers around the community of Wildwood, Alta., to create a humidity bubble as protection. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

The report found that in addition to many residents being unwilling to abandon their livestock, evacuation efforts were also stymied by unclear information about evacuation boundaries and where people were supposed to go, as well as time challenges and a lack of trust that properties would be adequately protected.

As the wildfires raged on, the report found that county staff and local fire crews were overwhelmed and unable to keep up. 

“We were stretched so thin throughout the fires, and then we went right on into the flooding . . . we were under state and local emergency for I think 63 or 64 days,” Yellowhead County Mayor Wade Williams said in an interview late last month. 

The report recommends the county train all staff to take on emergency response roles, that they recruit more volunteers to the county fire department, and that emergency plans and strategies be developed.

Williams said county council and staff are still reviewing the report and considering what changes do and don’t make sense to implement.

Still, he believes county staff went above and beyond in the midst of a challenging and evolving emergency.

“You don’t know where fires are going to start and what areas are going to be jeopardized. So it’s really tough to be proactive,” he said.

A person stands on top of a white truck surrounded by floodwaters
A person stands on top of truck surrounded by floodwaters in June 2023. At the time, Yellowhead County had declared a state of local emergency following days of heavy rain. (Yellowhead County/Facebook)

As of late March, Williams said the county had already held 13 FireSmart sessions for residents so far this year, and has developed a system for farmers to register equipment that can be used to help with firefighting efforts in the future, such as using farm equipment to create fire breaks in fields.

Other issues, including how to manage evacuations of potentially thousands of cattle have yet to be tackled, Williams said. 

Call for provincial action

Many of the report’s findings dealt with provincial responsibilities. 

Among the many recommendations related to Alberta Wildfire was a call for the agency to act more like an emergency response organization and to modernize and start sharing fire maps with the public so that residents can have better, more accurate information.

There was also a call for Alberta Wildfire to offer more leadership and resources to local authorities.

The report notes that Yellowhead County Fire Department (YCFD) was unable to deal with demands in areas that are designated as the county’s responsibility – known as white zones – because they fall outside provincial forested protection areas – known as green zones.

Further complicating the division of responsibility is that local authorities are also responsible for protecting structures within green zones. 

Meanwhile, Alberta Wildfire’s resources were also strained as the agency was responding to competing demands as other fires burned across the province.

“With the number, size and complexity of the 2023 wildfire incidents, YCFD coverage was naturally spread unbearably thin,” the report states.

“In a disaster that inherently overwhelms local systems and resources, there is a pressing need for comprehensive local, regional, provincial, and national strategies plus resources to support local disasters.”

A burned school bus that lacks windows.
A school bus in Yellowhead County, near the hamlet of Wildwood, was completely destroyed by fire in May 2023. (Danielle Benard/Radio-Canada)

In an emailed statement, Pam Davidson, spokesperson for Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen, declined to comment on the report, and instead pointed to investments in wildfire resources in the 2024 budget.

“Alberta’s government provides aid through many mutual aid agreements in place, allowing us to support wildfire operations with specialized equipment, but it’s crucial that municipalities ensure they have the capacity to protect structures and measure to fight wildfires in the white area,” Davidson said.

The report also recommends that the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) loosen the reins it has on its Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) program – specialized training for dealing with fires where urban areas intersect with natural areas –  making it more accessible to both Alberta Wildfire and local authorities.

The authors recommend WUI training opportunities be offered aggressively and widely across the province.

“The program has been criticized as being exclusive, with training only available to a small, select group of individuals, which does not allow the local responders or community members to take advantage of the education,” the report states. 

Arthur Green, spokesperson for Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Services Mike Ellis, says the AEMA is aware of the report and is considering its feedback. 

He said they are adding additional WUI instructors and improving access to training.

“We are committed to making sure the WUI program is responsive to the needs of municipalities and are collaborating with our partners to administer the program in a way that is transparent, evidence-based, and follows best practices.”

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