Thursday, November 16, 2017

Stier brings Kenow wildfire inquiry request to legislature

Corrected for accuracy

Chris Davis - Livingstone - Macleod MLA Pat Stier (UC) brought the request of an MD of Pincher Creek citizens coalition for an official inquiry into the response to the recent Kenow wildfire to the Alberta legislature yesterday afternoon, November 15. Council for the MD of Pincher Creek has also been discussing the issue since before the recent municipal election.

In the legislature MLA Stier said "Mr. Speaker, the Kenow fire that occurred in Waterton Park and areas of the MD of Pincher Creek has raised many questions about the emergency response by a coalition of area landowners," said Stier. "These residents have grave concerns regarding communication difficulties, fire preparedness, and the lack of proper notification. Therefore, this group is requesting a formal inquiry into the events surrounding this fire as it relates to all of the government agencies involved. To the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Previous wildfire events have led to such inquiries. Will your ministry be conducting a formal inquiry that covers all aspects of the Kenow fire, and if not, why not?"

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Oneil Carlier responded "While it is true that we've had, you know, some wildfires in the southeast corner of the province, overall we've had a very good fire season, with only 15 per cent of the 10-year average of fires, so only 15 per cent of that. Our firefighters have been doing a fantastic job. Their pre-suppression efforts have been, bar none, some of the best in the world. I'm very proud of our firefighters and the excellent work that they have done."

MLA Stier questioned that response. "Mr. Speaker, I'm not sure if he answered the question about my formal inquiry. Given that there were several different government entities involved in this event, including the forestry ministry, Environment and Parks, Parks Canada, the MD of Pincher Creek, and the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, and given that landowner questions remain mostly unanswered by the various agencies, to the Minister of Municipal Affairs: will your ministry, which includes the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), have a key role to play in an inquiry into the Kenow fire, and to what extent does it have any responsibility to see that this results in a report being completed?"

Minister of Children's Services Danielle Larivee responded, saying "Wildfires are always scary, and we empathize with anyone who lost property or livestock as a result. I'm immensely proud of the first responders who fought these fires, both their own wildland firefighters and the many municipal firefighters who helped protect homes and businesses. Officials from the AEMA are in constant contact with affected municipalities and local leaders, and always after an incident such as this they work together to analyze what happened after the experience in order to continue to make the services that we deliver better after every single event. We will learn from this experience. We'll continue to move forward."

That response did not satisfy Stier. "Well, Mr. Speaker, we're still not getting an answer to the request for a formal inquiry. Given that the various local government agencies directly involved in your emergency response to the Kenow fire have not yet been able to provide any clear details on a formal inquiry and given that the affected residents have some very serious concerns and questions on this incident and given that the ministries involved will hopefully conduct an inquiry at some point, to the forestry minister again: are you prepared to meet with these local concerned landowners and also provide an opportunity for public input into the questions at public meetings yet to be held, and if so, when and where might they be?"

Minister Carlier said "Thank you, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question and the suggestion. I think it's a worthwhile suggestion, and I'll most certainly look into it, talk to my officials to see what we can learn from this. In every experience in wildfire season we do learn something. I am proud of the co-operation between the various government departments, between the municipal departments that does take place. In every emergency situation, wildfires or not, there will be something to learn, and I will most certainly take his suggestions into consideration."

Council for the MD of Pincher Creek heard from Division 1 resident Kathy Flundra at their September 26 regular meeting. Division 1, is adjacent to Waterton Lakes National Park and was directly affected by the fire. Flundra spoke on behalf of an ad hoc coalition of residents advocating for a formal inquiry into the MD's management of communications and firefighting resources during the crisis.

According to Flundra , "The damage caused by the Kenow fire when it exited Waterton Lakes National Park on September 11 was significant. Five homes were lost in the Pincher Creek MD, together with numerous outbuildings, machinery and critical ranch infrastructure, dozens of miles of fences, supplies of hay and feed, and acre upon acre of grassland and forest in the UNESCO-designated Waterton Biosphere Reserve, much of which is preserved by the Nature Conservancy and local ranchers and residents. This is a fraction of the damage that this fire could have caused were it not for the defensive and offensive efforts of private citizens to prevent and combat it with every resource they had to hand. It is also, however, more damage than should ever have occurred had optimized government-led resources been fully prepared and deployed before, during, and after the moment of crisis. What is more, the extreme risk faced by some residents of the region on the night of September 11th could have been significantly reduced with appropriate warning and preparation."

Later during the same September 26 meeting Division 1 councillor Quentin Stevick made a motion "That the MD of Pincher Creek council call for a public review regarding the events leading up to and including the local state of emergency because of the Kenow fire." Stevick accepted a friendly amendment from councillor Schoening to append "until the local state of emergency was declared" to that motion. After lengthy discussion about the possible parameters of such a review council decided to discuss the matter further at their October 10 regular meeting, 

At their October 10 meeting decided to table Stevick's proposed resolution until an anticipated Unified Command debriefing was provided, effectively postponing a decision until after the October 16 municipal elections. Councillor Schoening did not retain his seat in the election. Councillor Stevick was elected Reeve by the council at their organizational meeting after the election (while still retaining his status as Division 1 councillor).

The first meeting of the new council was organizational. At their first regular meeting on November 7 council again discussed the issue. Councillor Terry Yagos said he was not opposed to a review, but said he had spoken to CAO Wendy Kay on the subject the day before, who informed him that a preliminary report had been received from two people who set up the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission and Yagos wanted council to take the time to read it "to give us some direction".*  The other members of council indicated they were not aware of the report. MD Director of Finance Janene Felker, who was sitting in for CAO Wendy Kay, said the report had indeed been received the day before but was in draft form, had been sent back for tweaks, and would probably be ready before the next council meeting, scheduled for the afternoon of Tuesday, November 28*. Council unanimously agreed to table the issue until that meeting.

*Note: previously I reported that Councillor Yagos had seen the report, which is incorrect.  I also called it a report from the provincial government, which is apparently also incorrect.  According to Yagos he only heard about the report from CAO Wendy Kay, and had not seen it.   I apologize for the inaccuracies.

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