05/18/2012 08:24 EDT | Updated 07/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Risk from Alberta wildfires outstripping ability to respond: Slave Lake report

EDMONTON - A report into last spring's Slave Lake disaster says Alberta's forest fires danger has grown to the point where it's beginning to outstrip the province's ability to respond to it.

"We are in a different reality as it relates to the threat wildfires pose in this province," said Bill Sweeney, who led a review into last May's blaze that incinerated more than 500 homes and buildings and forced thousands of people from their homes at an estimated cost of almost $1 billion.

The report found the wind-whipped fires moved faster than officials were able to communicate with each other or the people of Slave Lake. As a result, residents weren't told about how quickly the danger to themselves and their community was escalating.

"I think people within the community should have had more information than they did receive," Sweeney said upon the report's release Friday.

Sweeney, a retired senior RCMP officer, said officials should have done more to tell people why the fires were becoming so dangerous — how close they were to town, how much fuel was in the surrounding forest and how violent winds were fanning the flames.

"That conversation did not occur and that should have occurred."

The report also points to communication troubles between the provincial government and other organizations.

"Communication within Sustainable Resource Development and among responding agencies, at times, lacked planning and clarity," it says.

Overloaded radio systems, power outages and loss of cellphone coverage made things worse, although the report says lots of in information was passed around through social networking such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some residents complained after the fires that they weren't given enough warning and were forced to turn back into the inferno when they tried to leave town because they found that roads had been closed.

Sweeney said that given the situation at the time, he doesn't see how things could have been done differently.

"We did not see any opportunity to employ different tactics that would have positively guaranteed a more positive outcome that would not have compromised the safety of firefighters."

The report's overwhelming message is that Alberta's fire situation has permanently changed and the province must respond.

More people now live outside urban areas among the trees and wildlife of the forest. That brings new complications — from the presence of new fuels such as woodpiles or propane tanks to the overlapping of responsibilities between towns, municipalities and the province.

As well, Alberta's weather is changing.

The Slave Lake fire was driven by five consecutive days of winds averaging between 50 and 60 kilometres an hour — an event unprecedented in 35 years of weather records in the area.

"From what (the meteorologists) tell us, expect more of those intervals of strong winds," said wildfire behaviourist Dennis Quintilio. "If those winds are on the increase, those are serious implications."

The report offers 21 recommendations to respond to the new normal.

One suggestion is that the government include information on potential fire behaviour and threats in its advisories. Another is for higher standards and training for employees responsible for liaison and communications before, during and after a wildfire.

Firefighters and decision-makers need to be able to move faster, says the report, which recommends special fire attack crews modelled after U.S.-style "hotshot" teams.

"These are full-time crews that are engaged in sustained attack and initial attack on wildfires," said Sweeney. "They also engage in the prevention activities that we are eager the minister to consider in need of additional focus."

There's also a call for a review of Sustainable Resource Development’s dispatch and resource-tracking systems.

Diana McQueen, environment and sustainable resources minister, promised a "timely and thorough" response to all the report's recommendations. She said the government has already made substantial changes to the way it prepares for and prevents forest fires.

"The new reality is whether the climate is going to continue to change," she said. "We don't know that for sure, but we do know we need to be prepared for these kinds of winds."

She said it's too soon to offer a cost estimate for some of the changes the report recommends.