Posted on May 9, 2016

Province will not waver in commitment to fight wildfire

Fort Mc Murray firefighter

Heartbreaking images of the tragedy unfolding in Fort McMurray have brought Albertans together in a way that reflects our true spirit of compassion and resilience in the face of adversity.

It’s hard to imagine the anxiety of leaving your home at a moment’s notice without knowing what will be there when you return. Once again, Albertans are demonstrating the strength and resolve that always gets us through difficult times together.

This disaster hits particularly close to home for the people of Slave Lake who lived through the wildfires of 2011, and those who were forced from their homes amid rising flood waters in southern Alberta just a few years ago.  

Now, as in both those difficult times, Albertans are pulling together in the face of disaster to help each other through.

Stories of Albertans welcoming strangers into their homes, volunteering at emergency shelters, providing gas, food and water for stranded evacuees and donating to relief efforts through the Red Cross have been truly inspiring.

I want all Albertans affected by this disaster to know that your government has your back in your time of need. Right now our focus is on ensuring the safety and well-being of all those evacuated, and we will remain fully committed for as long as it takes to rebuild the community of Fort McMurray.

There has been some suggestion that the projected wildfire budget for this year may have played a role in the Fort McMurray fire.

I want to assure all Albertans that this is absolutely not true. Every necessary resource was available when this fire started, and we will continue to ensure every necessary resource is available going forward.

Our government and our emergency management system are better prepared than ever before to fight extreme wildfires, thanks to lessons learned from the Slave Lake tragedy and the Flat Top Complex report and recommendations that followed. Implementation of each of the report’s 21 recommendations is well underway and has resulted in significant improvements. For example, we now have an additional 200 firefighters available to protect homes, families, businesses and critical infrastructure from the threat of wildfires.

We also now begin the wildfire season in March instead of April. That means that this year, annual restrictions on burning activities were in place a month early, and training for wildfire crews began earlier as well.

We have improved our emergency wildfire communication capacity to ensure Albertans, local officials and the media have accurate information, in real time, through fire information officers stationed at 10 locations throughout the province. Additional tools, including a wildfire app, Twitter and Facebook updates, are also now provided.

I have directed my officials to study the remaining recommendations and whether there is more we can be doing to better prepare for increasingly frequent and severe wildfires.

In terms of our response to the Fort McMurray fire and any other fires throughout this season, let me be perfectly clear: we will continue to dedicate every resource needed to protect families, homes, businesses and critical infrastructure.

Although we are better prepared as a result of lessons learned from past tragedies, unfortunately no amount of planning or resources will entirely eliminate the threat of fires and floods in Alberta.

We cannot control Mother Nature, but we can do our part to minimize the human causes of wildfires.

In Alberta, our spirit remains strong and resilient. We have been through disasters before and we always come out of them stronger.

From the onset, Premier Rachel Notley and our cabinet have been clear: the safety of Albertans is our No. 1 priority.

We will not waver in our resolve to do everything in our power to keep Albertans safe and support them as they rebuild their lives in the days, months and years ahead.

This column was originally published in the Calgary Herald on May 9, 2016.