Disaster season: fire, flood or something else?

The thing about disasters is you never know what the next one is going to be. Chances are it won’t be the same or even similar to the last one, but you never know.
Fire? Flood? Dangerous goods spill during a fire, followed by a flood?The regional fire service and other emergency agencies are constantly training for these sorts of scenarios. They learned huge lessons in the 2011 wildfire disaster; more training and more and better equipment since then have enhanced their capabilities.
But you never know. Nature, fate, random chance – call it what you want – has got something in store.
If disasters interest you, the World Wide Web has some nice resources. The worst disaster in Canadian history, in terms of loss of life was the ammo ship explosion in Halifax harbour in 1917 killed over 1,600 people and wiped out a few city blocks. If you count epidemics, the numbers are bigger. Something like 5,800 people died of smallpox in Montreal in the spring of 1885. Many of them had been opposed to the idea of a vaccine. Spanish flu was guilty of an estimated 50,000 deaths in Canada in the great epidemic of 1918 and 19, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
When it comes to fires, Slave Lake and area are definitely on the map, and not just in a Canadian context. The 2011 disaster is featured prominently in a Wikipedia list of destructive North American wildfires, dating back nearly 200 years. The worst of those was in Wisconsin in 1871, killing 1,700 people. Oddly enough, this was the same day Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (or so the legend goes) kicked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire. The Peshtigo Fire remains the most destructive in Canada/U.S. history. It destroyed 12 communities, but isn’t remembered much, due to the legendary status of the fire further south on Lake Michigan.
Since then, risk reduction and disaster response have improved by huge leaps and bounds. But as emergency managers are fond of reminding us, if the conditions are right very bad things can and will still happen.
How about Colorado just a few summers ago? Over the course of a few days, two separate wildfires destroyed 248 and 346 homes near Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. This in an area with a high standard of emergency preparedness. But as the Colorado Springs Fire Marshall Brett Lacey told a conference in Slave Lake, those protocols only work if they are followed. And in some of those nice neighbourhoods, FireSmart risk-reduction advice was routinely ignored. It amounted to an invitation to wildfire – once it took hold – to run right up and into those properties. Flooding has always been a part of the human experience as well, and a regular feature of life in Alberta. But 2013 did set the bar rather higher. The southern Alberta floods astounded even the experts. A lot of people are asking why in the world anybody chose to build in a spot as vulnerable as High River, for example. Slave Lake will flood again, no question. It just isn’t far enough above lake level to be safe. Disaster is definitely in our future, and in that we have something in common with everyone else in the world.


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