Allegations the mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray was issued dangerously late continue to surface as the province launches an inquiry into the city-wide exodus.
“We need to understand why there was such a delay,” said Diane Slater, a retired councillor and former acting mayor in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. “I hear mixed messages and I’m sure the public does too. We need the facts and the truth.
“There is a lot hearsay about people’s stories and I think we need to drain all of that information together so we can have the good, bad and the ugly about what went on.”
And Slater — who has been lobbying government officials for an inquiry — is hopeful she will get the answers she’s looking for.
On Friday, Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee expressed regret the Fort McMurray evacuation didn’t come sooner, and confirmed it would be the focus of an arms-length investigation.
Earlier this week, CBC Edmonton published a firsthand account from two Fort McMurray firefighters who said emergency officials ignored the warning signs and delayed the evacuation, creating pandemonium when the blaze breached city limits on May 3.
A day before the evacuation, the fire loomed 1.2 km west of the city. Amid battering winds and sweltering temperatures, the blaze doubled in size to a staggering 2,600 hectares the next day and started racing toward Fort McMurray.
By mid-morning, it had jumped the Athabasca River and clawed its way around both the south and north sides of the city.
At 2 p.m., the Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued a mandatory evacuation order for Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace, but the order would soon cover the entire city. As approximately 90,000 residents fled, the out-of-control wildfire was already within city limits.
“I think it put all the lives of the first responders at risk as well as the lives of the people in the city,” said one of the firefighters who spoke to CBC on condition of anonymity. “People should have been notified much earlier.”
‘They put me and my children’s safety at risk’
Fort McMurray lawyer and longtime resident Andrew Thorne says he feels equally uneasy as he reflects on the moment when he and others were forced to flee for their lives, driving through flames on a grid-locked highway.
“You don’t get into a cage with a lion and you don’t let a forest fire burn that close to a city, and we did that for two days,” Thorne said. “I trusted whoever was in charge to do that properly and they put me and my children’s safety at risk.”
Thorne says emergency officials failed to act quickly, leaving residents unaware even as the fire began to engulf residential streets.
As the flames moved into the south end of town, Thorne says he rushed to his daughter’s school in Abasand, to find them completely unaware of the approaching inferno. The evacuation order would not be issued until more than a half hour later, and by dusk the neighbourhood would be all but levelled by the wildfire.
“I want to know why I had to go to my daughter’s school in Abasand and evacuate it,” Thorne said. “I want to know why a fire, as close as it was to the city, was not taken seriously.”
Thorne first called for an inquiry on June 14 during the first council meeting held in Fort McMurray following the evacuation. His concerns were rebuffed by Mayor Melissa Blake, who said the evacuation was a “miracle” of human tenacity.
“You’re not going to hear me speak ill of any living soul that put effort into leaving the community that day or the people on the ground that stayed behind,” Blake said in council chambers. “I appreciate that you want a lot of answers, but we had no idea the wind was going to shift so dramatically and bring it to our doorsteps.
“It was a miracle that we were able to get out they way we did.”
Chief Darby Allen was equally emphatic in defending the evacuation timeline when responding to recent criticisms. Allen said emergency officials overcame impossible odds to evacuate so many people and save 85 per cent of structures from the unrelenting flames.
“People say we should have moved faster but this thing was moving at a pace that was unprecedented, and we got people out as fast we could,” Allen said Wednesday morning. “We can take some criticism but we know, at the end of the day, we saved most of the city.”