BIGHORN – A wildfire that grew to more than 690 hectares earlier this month was a stark reminder to get an emergency evacuation plan in place for MD of Bighorn residents.
"I think we have to realize that while we did not have a major route blocked by the fire this time, or we did not have any people or buildings involved in that fire this time, under similar conditions in a different place, that response to that fire could have become very complicated and very dangerous," Bighorn Reeve Dene Cooper said during the September council meeting.
"So this time, I think we did very well, but I also think we should not take our eyes off the issue though. Fire in the wrong place, on the wrong day, is going to be very seriously complicated."
Referring to the Devil's Head wildfire that broke out during the September long weekend and grew to more than 697 hectares in size caused by an abandoned campfire near Black Rock Mountain in Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park – which is still under investigation – council noted they have been requesting such a plan since the start of this year.
"Before COVID shut the world down, myself and councillor [Paul] Clark were hound-dogging to get evacuation work up – this highlights the need for that," Coun. Paul Ryan said during the virtual meeting.
In a request for proposal document dated March 10, 2020, it is outlined how council asked for qualified consultants to review, evaluate and update the MD's existing Municipal Emergency Plan (MEP). The request also asked for the new document have evacuations plan(s) with emergency evacuation centres for the hamlets and rural areas.
The existing MEP has a general evacuation plan that outlines how residents will be alerted/warned, lists the five designated collection points across the MD and has an evacuation advice checklist for residents. The document was last updated in 2018.
Bighorn administration acknowledged the request to update the existing plan and outline an evacuation procedure has been in place for some time and said they are hopeful to have a budget request come forward soon.
"The emergency municipal plan is an item going forward ... costing for it through a consultant will be in a budget request," Bighorn Chief Administration Officer Rob Ellis said.
Bighorn is home to three emergency services stations with equipment and personnel – Exshaw Fire Rescue, Ghost Fire and Jamieson Road – with the option to also lean on neighbouring districts and municipalities for help.
With a population under 2,000, the 2,664 square kilometre municipal district shares borders with Banff National Park, Canmore, Stoney Nakoda First Nation, Kananaskis Improvement District, Rocky View County, Mountain View County, and Clearwater County.
"We have to understand that our response as MD to that fire is helpful but limited ... the attack on the fire was immediate, it was sustained, it was robust in the sense of equipment and it demonstrated how lucky we are to be close to [our neighbours]," Cooper said.
Councillor Lisa Rosvold noted the size of the Devil's Head wildfire was in part, due to the aerial ignition, also known as prescribed fire to prevent the fire from expanding further, but agreed to more measures in place to protect MD residents would be good.
"For peace of mind, a good portion of those hectares were prescribed burns," she said.
Coun. Ryan said he looks forward to administration's budget request to get the ball rolling on a plan for residents.
"I think people would certainly have the benefit of knowledge of what to do, or what they are recommended to do," he said.
– with files from Tanya Foubert