Lac La Biche County’s emergency management team has been recognized nationally for providing safe spaces for thousands of residents during the Fort McMurray Horse River Fire in 2016.
The Emergency Management Exemplary Service Award acknowledges the response, preparedness and outstanding contributions made by agencies across the country throughout emergencies, explained John Kokotilo, the manager of Protective Services and Regional Fire Chief for Lac La Biche County.
He said the award goes to the emergency teams, but the recognition is for all community residents who helped during the days and weeks around the fire that forced the evacuation of thousands of northern Alberta residents.
“This award was presented to Lac La Biche County emergency management agency—it’s for everybody, it’s a community award. I’m extremely proud of how we all handled it,” Kokotilo said.
COVID measures and some financial and clerical reporting from the provincial government on the 2016 wildfire created delays in getting the award.
From May to July of 2016, hundreds of local residents and businesses members collaborated to provide over 35,000 meals, countless deliveries of clothing, supplies, leisure activities and more than700 sleeping arrangements for the evacuees, he said. The assistance was provided at the local Bold Center and in homes across the region.
Throughout the response, county officials estimated that there were more than 16,000 individuals in and out of the municipality, utilizing the available services. With the support of homeowners, hotels and campsites, municipal emergency coordinators were able to provide more shelter spaces to accommodate families and the massive influx of pets arriving throughout the entire county.
“We have roughly 2,200 people in the hamlet, and at any one time, we had 16,000 people in this municipality. It’s the community and their generosity. This could not have been done without everyone contributing,” Kokotilo said as municipal officials accepted the award at a small ceremony at the Bold Center.
Kokotilo was filled with pride for his community by how quickly everyone responded and the hundreds of volunteer hours it took to make the evacuees comfortable—with some staff working around the clock. Moving forward, he said, it’s important to make sure staff don’t burn out and to apply minor changes when, and if disasters occur.
“We learned lessons, like donation control. A few things that weren't so bad…maybe having three shifts as opposed to two shifts to not experience burnout. Some of our people worked a full 62 days; first for 24 hours and then 12-hour shifts with no days off in between. That's where you have to ask for help,” he said explaining that every emergency situation—near and far—offers lessons to help with the next response. “Since then—and because we have had a few disasters in our area— the Fort McMurray fire and flood, the Pincher Creek disaster and our flood more recently. All of those events contribute to our understanding; that if we need help we need help.”
The Regional Fire Chief hopes to continue building effective strategies, partnerships, training and emergency management cooperation within the municipal structure.
“We have about 150 of our county staff trained in emergency management, which is really beneficial….were always training as emergency staff you never stop. The goal is always to get better.”
Safety and recognition
In the future, he said, educating residents on fire preventative programs is a goal of his department through the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta (FRIAA) $50,000 FireSmart grant application earlier this year. Additionally, the county is eligible to apply for an extra $100,000 for fire safety rebates for residents around the county due to the positive work by the department over the years, the said.
“We haven’t applied for the $100,0000 yet, we have until the end of January to do that—and we plan on doing so— if that works it will be a huge incentive,” he said, expressing appreciation that municipal staff have been recognized for their efforts over the years.
While the recognition is well-received, Kokotilo says it’s not why emergency responders do it.
“As a firefighter don’t expect to get awards or to be called a hero. What I like to do is see an end result that will make it that much safer for somebody or for the community; that’s my reward,” he said.