Thirteen years ago, Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi saw first hand the devastation a wildfire could cause in a city.
Then, as the man in charge of planning for Kelowna, he was pressed into duty as acting city manger during the 2003 wildfire that engulfed hundreds of homes in the city’s southern Mission area. AS a result he found himself camped out in the emergency operation centre at the main fire hall onEnterprise way for almost a week.
And when the fire was finally extinguished, he was front and centre again as the city recovered.
Fast forward to the recent Fort McMurray wildfire, which far eclipsed what happened here, and when the Alberta government sought out experts to help with the recovery plan for that community, they knocked on Mattiussi’s door.
“I got a call from someone at Emergency Management B.C. saying Alberta was requesting people from B.C. to help and my name had been suggested,” he said from Edmonton Wednesday, where he is part of a four-person B.C. team helping the Alberta government develop a recovery plan.
He flew out to the Alberta capital earlier this week and expects to be there another week.
Mattiussi said he has been impressed with the level of assistance the Alberta provincial government is giving to Fort McMurray as it deals with the loss of an estimated 2,300 homes and buildings.
At the height of the fire, all 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray were evacuated as firefighters seemed helpless to stop the onslaught of the flames.
Mattiussi, who is working with an official from B.C. Housing, and two representatives of Emergency Management B.C. who specialize in planning and business resumption, said the economic downturn in Alberta will likely hinder the recovery effort there.
With Wednesday being the first day that Fort McMurray residents were allowed back into their homes or to see where their homes once stood, the Kelowna city manager said now the real work starts for that city and the Alberta government in terms of the recovery.
But he said from what he has seen so far, he expects the recovery effort be smoother than some may have thought because of the provincial assistance.
“It’s still in the early stage, but (Fort McMurray officials) are doing a hell of a job under really disastrous circumstances,” he said. “On the flip side, the province is doing an outstanding job supporting them.
While a lot has changed in terms of technical approaches to fire fighting and recovery efforts, as well as communications since Kelowna’s fire, the building blocks of recovery in a city not only gutted by fire but whose residents were forced to evacuate, in many cases, hundreds of kilometres away, are in many way similar, said Mattiussi.
Getting the basic needs met and the community back up on its feet and operating so rebuilding can take place will require the strong sense of community that Fort McMurray has already shown, he added.
While working from Edmonton because accommodation is so scarce in the Fort McMurray area due to the extensive damage, Mattiussi said has been able to see how the emergency operations centre that dealt with the fire operates. And he is impressed.
He said while lessons were learned and changes made in the aftermath of Kelowna fire, he is learning new ways of doing things in Alberta and plans to take notes and make suggests for improvement here when he returns.
“But overall, I would not change the B.C. model much.”
As for bringing back memories of 2003—Mattiussi’s family was not only evacuated but his house at the time in Crawford Estates was in danger of being deliberately destroyed if a plan to create a major fire break had to be deployed—spending nearly 12 hours a day in an EOC in Edmonton this week seemed like familiar territory.
“But I’m happy I can help in any way,” he said.
Noting Alberta firefighters were quick to come to Kelonwa’s aid in 2003, Mattiussi said he feels he is, in a small way, “repaying the debt.”
Mattiussi is expected to return to Kelowna next week.