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Communication, inexperience factors in Banff's out-of-control prescribed fire: Independent review

“Parks Canada accepts the third-party report’s recommendations and is initiating necessary changes to its processes for future fire operations,” the federal agency states.

BANFF – A third-party review of a prescribed fire that got out of control in the Banff townsite in May, putting residents and visitors on high alert, has made a series of recommendations to increase the odds something like this doesn’t happen again.

Prepared by Satya Inc., the after action review of the Compound Meadows fire that got away on a hot, dry day on May 3, found the response was initially chaotic, there were mechanical failures with some equipment, confusion over chain of command and roles, and lack of information from Parks Canada to the public.

The consultants recommend using designated fire meteorologists and fire weather specialists to get more accurate information leading up to and throughout prescribed fires, stronger evacuation planning, more access to water for ground crews, and better communication – among many other recommendations.

Parks Canada, which released the 21-page report on Thursday (Dec. 7), sent a prepared statement in response, saying an after action review does not seek to assign fault, but rather encourages learning and gives an opportunity to improve operations.

“Parks Canada accepts the third-party report’s recommendations and is initiating necessary changes to its processes for future fire operations,” the federal agency states.

On May 3, burning to prepare for the main prescribed fire two days later got out of control, jumping to the east side of Banff Avenue and forcing evacuation of Banff Rocky Mountain Resort and Mount View Barbecue as well as several horses from the Banff Light Horse Association corrals as a precaution.

At the time, the fire danger rating was high, and temperatures were in the mid-20s Celsius. The weather forecast for the day indicated an increased risk of thunderstorms over the eastern slopes with winds forecast to be southwest at 10km/hr.

However, as firefighters were pre-burning grasses to protect the wildlife exclusion fence along the Trans-Canada Highway – known as black-lining in preparation for the main ignition on May 5 amid cooler temperatures and rain – the wind quickly changed direction and increased from 10 km/hr to 28 km/hr.

At approximately 4 p.m., fast-moving flames jumped from Compound Meadows to the east side of Banff Avenue, where the fire grew about three hectares beyond the planned 82-hectare burn unit area. In all, 21 hectares burned.

Three sheds at the horse corrals burned down, including one that belonged to the Brewster family who lost several treasured family heirlooms, and the iconic Bill Peyto entrance sign that welcomed people entering the Banff townsite burned to the ground.

Along with Parks Canada personnel, certified firefighters and incident command members participating in an intensive 12-day Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), the Town of Banff’s fire department was called to help.

Alpine Helicopters dumped water on the blaze and RCMP were called to help with evacuations.

Smoke and flames were visible from Banff Avenue, Trans-Canada Highway, and from the Town of Canmore, 25 km away. Banff Avenue was closed off and the Legacy Trail was shut down.

Residents of the Banff townsite, while not under any evacuation orders, were on high alert.

Parks Canada officials say through quick action by fire personnel, with the support of helicopters bucketing water on the blaze, the fire was managed and brought under control within six hours.

According to the federal agency, a significant amount of personnel and equipment were on standby given the location of the prescribed fire so close to the townsite, noting there was a detailed plan, including local weather and environmental conditions needed to start the prescribed burn.

“While every effort is made to prevent prescribed fires from escaping, there is always risk. As a result, contingency resources and plans are put in place to minimize potential impacts,” the agency said in its statement.

“Parks Canada commends the planning, swift response, and professionalism displayed by fire management personnel.”

According to the independent review, there were insufficient operational briefings and understanding of personnel on assigned tasks, including holding and structure protection, for the prescribed burn operations.

The review found there was a lack of understanding of the operational plan for the prescribed fire, including the organizational structure and objectives for ignition operations that day, as well as a lack of understanding of structure protection and holding crews of tasks.

In addition, information was lacking for personnel from other regions on local conditions, including weather factors and geography, which is particularly important when personnel are not local, the review concluded.

The review found during a media event for WTREX, requests to turn off fire pumps delayed the deployment of structure protection equipment at nearby facilities, thereby causing delays in implementation and testing.

In addition, there was a lack of coordination between the ignition crew and holding crew during the black-lining operation, and there were mechanical issues with gear and equipment, which required better testing ahead of burning operations.

“More diligence was required to ensure that holding resources kept up with black-lining operations and that water supply and equipment were adequate and functional – e.g. Geikie bags and all-terrain vehicles with water tanks were filled and in good working order,” the review states.

In terms of incident management team and leadership, the review found the response to the fire getting out of control was initially chaotic until the incident command structure was reorganized to deal with the evolving situation.

In addition, it was found there was a lack of information on other WTREX-prescribed fire events and lessons learned from previous burns getting out of control or issues.

“The lack of fire line experience of some personnel made them a risk to themselves and others on the fire line," states the report.

During the response to the fire, the review found that safety training of personnel was disregarded for tactical operations at multiple levels – for example, lack of consideration for lookouts, anchor points, communications, escape routes, and safety zones, as well as unity and chain of command, which resulted in crews not being aware of their position and chain of command.

The review found that communications during the prescribed burn and when the fire got out of control were a challenge.

Radios did not work properly, people did not know how to use them, some batteries were dead, and there was no ability to communicate across agencies.

“There was a lack of a proper chain of command, preparedness, and clear communication among the response resources during the evacuation of nearby facilities,” it concluded.

One of the recommendations of the report was to review public information plans to make sure there are crisis communication protocols and processes, including clarity around any changes in emergency processes and approvals.

“Evaluate the plans for inclusion of strategies to provide real-time management of social media and identify processes for escalation of media or online inquiries for rapid resolution and to prevent the spread of misinformation,” states the report.

The report said prescribed burn plans should include a process to make sure facilities adjacent to the burn area have emergency evacuation and response plans in place and consider preemptive evacuations of livestock in areas located adjacent to a burn.

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said the Town of Banff received the after action report on Thursday (Dec. 7).

“We are glad that Parks Canada has gone through this process,” she said.

“We want to do a thorough review especially with protective services and fire team before we provide any further comments.”

In post-incident management, a few participants felt there was confusion regarding the roles of individuals and groups during the incident resulting in a perceived lack of accountability by leadership afterwards.

The report said Parks Canada senior leadership was perceived to be lacking accountability with regard to the incident and the negative and hurtful racist and sexist discriminatory comments on social media and some media outlets.

“Some personnel questioned their approach to managing these issues, but senior leadership was not physically present to represent and explain their actions,” it said.

In its statement, Parks Canada said hateful and highly inappropriate comments that were directed at female fire management personnel via online platforms and in some media outlets were addressed following the incident.

“Parks Canada continues to reject these hateful comments and false assumptions,” the federal agency wrote.

“There will never be room in Parks Canada for the intolerance and misogyny expressed by certain individuals throughout this unprecedented fire season.”

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