Sask. to review emergency response

Officials in Saskatchewan’s emergency management office say they will review its procedures and response in the wake of last week’s destructive grass fires in the southwest.

Commissioner Duane McKay said there were at least 50 fire departments involved during the Oct. 17 emergencies and more than 1,100 calls to 9-1-1 at the peak.

The first public alerts went out in the afternoon due to the forecasted high winds but the situation escalated dramatically as several fires began. The two main fires burned 75,000 acres near Burstall and about 10,000 acres near Tompkins.

“Obviously the impacts have been quite significant,” McKay said last week, noting burned fences, dead livestock and lost feed in addition to several structures.

Damage assessments are still underway.

He said officials would examine how the response was co-ordinated and how the public is notified.

Once the province-wide SaskAlerts issues an advisory it falls to municipalities to disseminate further instructions such as evacuation orders.

“In this particular case, where the situation was moving very, very rapidly, that was probably a bit of a burden on local emergency management officials,” McKay said. “We’ll be reviewing that to see how we can offload some of that during these types of incidents.”

The SaskAlert system is available as an app on cellphones and is also connected to media outlets.

But McKay agreed that not everyone is listening to the radio, watching television or has the phone app.

“There is change coming within the system at a national level that will require cellphone providers to push alerts,” he said. “It other words you will not have to have the app.”

He also said there are likely to always be gaps in notifications and that’s why people have to be self-aware and have plans in place for evacuation or long-term power loss.

“The failsafe here is the knock on the door,” he said of having RCMP or others go door-to-door to advise of evacuation.

However, that is labour intensive and not necessarily possible in rural areas. In last week’s fires, the dust, sand and smoke reduced visibility to zero.

There were also widespread power outages due to downed lines.

The provincial public safety radio network connects federal, provincial and municipal agencies during emergencies. Municipalities that opt into the network pay a monthly fee. A spokesperson said most emergency response organizations are on it, but not all.

“We had loss of power at 28 sites during that emergency,” McKay said of the network. “Only two sites were impacted negatively… for about five minutes each.”

He also said that each fire department makes its own decisions during an event.

“Each particular local fire department is responsible for its own level of service it provides based on whatever they’re comfortable with,” he said. “Within that we encourage them, and in this particular case that is what occurred, to have mutual aid arrangements with surrounding fire departments.”

That includes cross-border agreements.

Burstall fire chief Russell Job said the wind was the critical problem fighting last week’s fires. That fire began in a cornfield near Hilda, Alta. and galloped about 30 kilometres across the border before it was extinguished.

He acknowledged help from between 10 and 15 departments, along with first responders and the women’s auxiliary, which provided food.

He listed departments from Hanna and Taber, Alta., to Swift Current, Sask.

“And they all had time to get here, which was the really bizarre part. We’re used to grass fires that take us two hours to put out.”

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