Collaborative Efforts to Successful Response and Recovery

In the wake of The Horse River Fire that struck Fort McMurray in 2016, causing upwards of $9 billion in economic losses, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo worked with the FireSmart program to lessen the vulnerability of the residential structures to wildfire. The FireSmart program is designed to decrease the chances of fire spreading to a home from the surrounding area and it focused mainly on altering the physical landscape around the home, rather than the home itself. As a voluntary program that relies heavily on homeowner input, engaging the public has proven to be a constant struggle, but one that nevertheless yields results.

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Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Research indicates that the intensity and frequency of wildfires, as well as the duration of the wildfire season, is expected to increase under a changing climate. The Horse River Fire was the single most expensive natural disaster to ever occur in Canada, causing some $9 billion in damages and leading to response from all three levels of government as well as the private and non-profit sectors. The fire occurred during an unusually hot and dry period, with temperatures above 30C and a relative humidity as low as 12%. Though many fires in the region are caused by lightning, this particular fire is suspected to have been human-caused, though no one has ever been arrested for it. The fire was not officially recorded as ‘out’ until the following year, having sustained itself by smouldering in the undergrowth throughout the winter. A cumulative 3,244 structures are recorded as having been destroyed. One response to this event was to implement an extensive FireSmart education and implementation program, to lessen the effects of any future fires.

Identifying Actions

There were two main sources of funding for the FireSmart training, the Province of Alberta (who contributed $10.5 million dollars) and the Canadian Red Cross (who contributed $3.9 million). There are 7 main FireSmart disciplines (education, vegetation management, legislation and planning, development considerations, interagency cooperation, emergency planning, and cross-training), all of which were considered critical components of improving fire resiliency, but all of which need to be addressed and implemented individually. The first four disciplines are largely related to controlling the mechanisms by which a wildfire can ignite a residential home. That is, by removing combustible materials on the property itself. There has also been some discussion of incorporating these principles into the land-use planning bylaws, but that has yet to materialize. The remaining three disciplines relate to organizational readiness. An interview with the Fire Chief at the time of the incident, Jody Butz, highlighted the need for creating strong partnerships in the planning and preparatory phases stating that you cannot be fully prepared for an event of this magnitude… it is important to reach out to partners in the preparedness stage and establish relations locally, provincially, and nationally so that the response can unfold as well as possible.


Regarding the ‘education’ aspect of FireSmart planning, free home inspections were made available to all interested homeowners. This is a critical component of the program that nearly everything else hinges upon as the homeowners themselves must be the ones to make the structural changes to their property; legal and financial considerations discourage a large-scale public sector response in this area. Interagency cooperation has also been addressed, with substantial improvements to the communication network for emergency planning and response in the public sector and joint agreements for response between the Insurance Bureau of Canada and the Red Cross. Because the FireSmart program is focussed on residential housing and, more specifically, landscaping, the opportunity is there to create new neighbourhoods that are consistent with the FireSmart principles. It is always less expensive to incorporate resilience features in new construction than it is to renovate existing structures. However, this program remains voluntary and while many homeowners are choosing to adopt the program, many other are not, putting the entire neighbourhood in jeopardy of house-to-house fire.

Outcomes and Monitoring Process

As the rebuilding process is still underway, it may be too early for a comprehensive follow-up on the effectiveness of the program thus far. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is continuing its FireSmart outreach program as continuing adherence and maintenance is critical to the upkeep of FireSmart principles. It may be too early to tell, but one of the major barriers to maintaining resilience is ensuring that lot-level vegetation remains adherent to FireSmart principles. This takes time and money and as the memory of the fire fades, so too may the incentive to keep working on resilience. Continued education and outreach by the municipal government is necessary but requires dedicated political will and budget allotment.

Next Steps

The next steps are to integrate FireSmart principles in future town planning and and zoning legislation, as well as maintaining the relationships and lines of communication forged in the aftermath of the fire.