Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Social Networking - Lessons from the Slave Lake Fire

I meant to make this post in a far more timely manner. On May 15, 2011, a forest fire destroyed approximately half of the town of Slave Lake Alberta (pop. 7000). One of the most interesting things that an outside observer can learn from that terrible disaster was the role that social networking played in alerting people to the danger.

The town's official notification method for evacuation was radio. A not unreasonable method but one of little use once the radio station burned down!

The timeline information is from this CBC article.

Friday May 13

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) posts a link on its Wildfire Info Facebook page to this fire forecast for the Slave Lake area: “The wildfire hazard for tomorrow is EXTREME. The forecast is calling for warm temperatures and very strong winds. Winds will be from the south east 40 km/hr gusting up to 60 km/hr.”

Saturday May 14

Noon - Wildfire starts burning 10 km south of Slave Lake. Several communities west of Slave Lake are put on two-hour evacuation notice.

5:30 pm - A second fire starts east of Slave Lake. Residents of Poplar Estates, Mitsue and the Sawridge Indian Band are evacuated to a Canadian Red Cross evacuation centre at Northern Lake College in Slave Lake. Fire Chief of Lesser Slave River Regional Fire Services confirms that 10 buildings have been hit in the Poplar Estates/Mitsue area.

7:15 pm - Officials with Alberta Health Services meet over telephone to create evacuation plan for Slave Lake Healthcare Centre in north of town. Nine ambulances are called in from surrounding communities to join the two already on standby in Slave Lake.

10:30 pm - Town of Slave Lake declares a Local State of Emergency.

Sunday May 15

7:39 am - SRD posts a message on Facebook: “For evacuations, local authorities will be contacting you and keeping you informed.” It reports that homes along the Old Smith Highway, northwest of town, have also been evacuated, but that the Town of Slave Lake has not been evacuated.

7:52 am - SRD posts a message on Facebook that Hwy 2 west of Slave Lake is closed.

9:19 am - SRD reports on Facebook that Hwy 88 west of Slave Lake between Hwys 2 and 745 has been reopened. Hwy 2 east of Slave Lake to Mitsue is open, “but motorists are being escorted by pilot vehicles.”

9:30 am - Town of Slave Lake reports that 400 hectares were affected by the fire east of town overnight, with 150 hectares still active with hot spots. Two-hundred sixty residents from Poplar Estates and Mitsue have registered at the evacuation centre in Slave Lake. The fire southwest of town is moving westward and has burned 300 hectares so far. Residents in communities west of Slave Lake are still on two-hour evacuation notice.

All highways are open, and the Town reports that the fire chief “is confident that the Town will not be evacuated; however, weather conditions continue to be a challenge for fire crews today as winds are expected to gust up to 70 kph and temperatures will go up to 18C.”

1:21 pm - SRD reports on Facebook that communities on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake from the Town of Slave Lake to Canyon Creek (25 km to the west) are now being evacuated: “Winds of up to 70 km/h are pushing the wildfire toward these communities. The fire is now more than 1,000 hectares in size.”

2:00 pm - In a press release, SRD reports that the two wildfires near Slave Lake are out of control, burning around 2,000 hectares. Residents who are evacuated from communities west of Slave Lake are told to go to the town to register at Northern Lakes College campus at the corner of Main Street and Hwy 2 in the south end of town. Municipal District of Lesser Slave River has already declared a Local State of Emergency.

2:30 pm - The Town of Slave Lake reports that Hwy 2 east of town is closed due to smoke, and Hwy 2 west of town is open only to evacuate residents.

Between 800 and 900 evacuees from communities west of town are expected, and the high school and middle school are set up to house evacuees. An Emergency Command Centre has been set up at the town hall at Main Street and 1A Ave. “Slave Lake is not under evacuation notice,” a Town release states.

3:15 pm - SRD posts message on Facebook: “It is hard to say whether or not Slave Lake will be evacuated. Firefighters are building a fire break between the town. Stay tuned for additional updates as they become available.”

3:45 pm - Courtney Murphy, news director of local radio station Lake FM, joins government officials in an airplane to survey the fire. Within five minutes, she sends photos to the radio station’s Facebook page with her phone and does live reports from the air. The station’s Facebook page and radio broadcasts become vital links for the public.

Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, Mel Knight, also tours the area by air for around 2 ½ hours, telling CBC Radio that night, “It’s a place where you don’t want to be at the moment.” Knight tells people to visit the SRD Facebook page for updates on the fire.

4:30 - Brenda and Dave Derkoch have piled family photos into a basket. They look outside to see smoke and ash moving closer. With Dave in one truck attached to his trailer and Brenda in another truck, the pair drive with family from their southeast home at 35 Parkdale Way to Main Street then south to the highway. Brenda is told by RCMP to head east, Dave is told to go west. A little more than 1 km down the road, Brenda is told the highway is closed and to turn around and go west.

4:36 pm - Courtney Murphy’s plane lands and she goes back to the station to continue broadcasting. There are reports of widespread power outages in Slave Lake, and the radio station is periodically going on and off the air.

5:13 pm - SRD posts to Facebook: “Slave Lake is NOT being evacuated. Poplar Estates remains evacuated as well as the subdivisions of Wagner, Widewater, Assineau, Canyon Cree and Bear road.”

5:15 pm - Four homes west of the Derkoch home, Sandy Gaskell, her husband and daughter are about to sit down for dinner. Worried about smoke in the area, Sandy asks her daughter to call the Town office, but they are told there is no evacuation order in place. They look outside and see their neighbour’s home on fire. Their daughter grabs a bowl of food and a spoon, and the family leaps into their vehicle and drives off. As they look back, they see their neighbour’s fence go up in flames, then the fence around their own home.

5:50 pm - At the headquarters of radio station Lake FM at 221 – 3 Ave NW, power goes out for the last time, and the station goes off the air. Courtney Murphy and her staff run out of the building and drive away. Forty minutes later, the radio station goes up in flames. The middle school across the street remains intact. Courtney Murphy and staff continue to send updates by phone to the station’s Facebook book page, as well as Prairie FM, a sister radio station in High Prairie.

The Canadian Red Cross tells media it has organized a team of 10 volunteers, 400 shelter cots, 300 blankets and 800 hygiene kits, which are on their way to Slave Lake. On their way, they receive word of a full evacuation and they drive instead to the community hall in Westlock, about 1 ½ hours south of Slave Lake. They wait for evacuees.

5:54 pm - SRD posts message to its Facebook site: “We have just received notification that residents of Slave Lake are being evacuated. The wildfire east of Slave Lake near Poplar Estates has now crossed Highway 2 and Highway 88. Winds in excess of 100 km/h have quickly pushed the fire closer to town.”

6:00 pm - Although there are many reports of houses and building in Slave Lake on fire, no official evacuation order has been issued. Hundreds of people drive to and gather at the Wal-Mart parking lot and in a nearby baseball diamond, just south of Hwy 2.

On his way there, Ernest Supernant stops at the parking lot of the 7-Eleven on the northwest corner of Main Street and 6 Ave SE. He looks north one block as flames hit the library, town hall and shopping centre, then across the street to the Ford dealership, where cars and trucks are engulfed. “Things were just blowing up left and right.”

Roger Auger’s roommate, who works at the radio station, tells Auger to pack his bags and leave. Auger goes to the Wal-Mart parking briefly, but heads back into town, frustrated by a lack of direction from officials. Separated from her son, Dorothy Beaver stays in the Wal-Mart parking lot and watches the fire leap over the highway and engulf the town. Michelle MacIsaac hears the dramatic tale of how her nephew climbs up a balcony to save his sister from a burning apartment building.

6:30 pm - Between 6:00 and 6:30, the province evacuates 29 patients from Slave Lake Healthcare Centre in the northeast of town. Twenty staff, including doctors, nurses and medical students join the patients. On the way out of town, the RCMP tells them the road out of town is closed. Ambulances and handi-buses drive to the Nova Inn off Main Street. Power has been cut. Staff set up mattresses for patients. Within 45 minutes, the road out of town is open again and ambulances and buses drive patients to hospitals in Westlock, Athabasca and Boyle. One patient is flown to Edmonton. Three doctors and two EMS crews stay behind in Slave Lake at the Emergency Command Centre, which has been hastily moved from Town Hall, which was evacuated and has since caught on fire, to Northern Lakes College.

7:41 pm - Despite a mass exodus from town, Lake FM reminds residents on Facebook that no evacuation order has been given for Slave Lake. Lake FM reports that SRD requests that residents gather in “non-combustible areas,” such as parking lots.

7:42 pm - SRD posts message to Facebook: “Residents in Slave Lake are being directed by the Town to gather in safe places within the town limits like the airport and large parking lots. The wildfire has entered the town limits and there are reports of several structural fires.”

8:05 pm - Courtney Murphy, who is now in a baseball field south of town where dozens of other residents are staying, receives a call from Slave Lake mayor, Karina Pillay-Kinnee, that the entire Town of Slave Lake is to be evacuated. Because her radio station is now off the air, Murphy calls Prairie FM in High Praire to broadcast the evacuation order. She also sends an update to her boss in Edson, who updates the station’s webpage and Facebook page within three minutes. Murphy tells people in the parking lot and word spreads. Within five minutes, an official with SRD phones Murphy to confirm she got the evacuation notice.

Alberta’s state-of-the-art Emergency Public Warning System, which notifies people of imminent emergencies over radio and TV airwaves, is not activated. Alberta Emergency Management Agency operations head Colin Lloyd defends the decision two days later, emphasizing that the local radio station had been destroyed and that there was not enough “lead time” for the system to have been effective.

11:00 pm - Resident Barb Courtielle is still in the Wal-Mart parking lot, desperate for news from her daughter, Annette. Annette and her children were travelling west on Hwy 2 earlier in the afternoon behind a pilot truck when smoke forced them to turn around. Annette heads north on Hwy 88, west of Slave Lake. She hits heavy smoke from other fires and it takes hours before she is able to turn around and get access to Edmonton, checking in with her mother, Barb, along the way. Overnight, hundreds of Slave Lake residents drive to evacuation centres in Athabasca, Edmonton and Westlock, as hundreds of firefighters continue to battle the Slave Lake fires, along with 29 out-of-control blazes across the province.

Monday May 16, 2011

10:37 am - At a press conference in Edmonton Dana Woodworth, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, echoes the premier’s sentiments. He reports that 95 percent of Slave Lake residents have been evacuated, and no one has been hurt or killed, something he attributes to fast action by firefighters, the leadership of the mayor and the local emergency response team.

Slave Lake mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee reports that the new town hall and library are destroyed, but that schools and “other major public infrastructure” are intact. She estimates that “a little more than a third [of the town] has perished.”


I didn't write this post and repost the above information to pick on anyone in government or Slave Lake. I know first hand just how confusing an emergency situation can be and I don't have enough information to judge all that occurred. What is very obvious is how much more effective facebook and twitter can be to alert people to danger rather than older systems using TV and radio. I strongly encourage everyone to sign up/like/whatever any and all government and emergency services facebook and twitter pages for their area. Additionally, bookmark important webpages. Consider forming your own facebook group for family and friends to help you communicate in an emergency.

Review this CNN article Facebook assembles group to plan for disasters. Sign up to FEMA's page, the Red Cross, and Global Disaster Relief.

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