Military response to Fort McMurray fires far too slow

The news is full of images from the wildfires in northern Alberta. Fort McMurray is especially hard-hit, but there are also many other fires throughout the Prairie Provinces and further into the north. According to CBC News this morning, three suburbs have been damaged to at least 60 percent and the fire spread into three others overnight as the result of wind changes. As of this morning, news reports indicate that 80,000 people have fled the city areas, which is far more than the official population of 62,000.

Yesterday afternoon, (Wednesday) Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that military resources were being put on notice to respond to a request from the provincial government. It was reported then that military units would be ready to move in two days. At the very same time, the mass exodus from Fort McMurray had resulted in virtually all gasoline supplies in the city and on southbound Highway 883 being exhausted. Today, aerial surveillance shows hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of cars abandoned along the highway. Emergency shelters in small communities both north and south of Fort McMurray are struggling to cope with the hordes of people arriving. Supplies of water and food are running out and a boil-water order was issued this morning, along with a province-wide emergency declaration.

Against this backdrop of disaster, and there is no other word for it, the military response is slow, far too slow and limited. There are several reasons for this, one of which has to do with the formal process of a request being issued by the province to the federal government. There are at least three other reasons and these need to be recognized and dealt with as part of the Defence Policy Review.

Readiness. The Canadian military is not currently officially tasked with domestic Disaster Response as a mission. While the United States and many other countries regularly employ their military services in this role, in Canada it is done as the result of a provincial ‘assistance request’ rather than a formal mission. The difference is important. When formally listed as a military mission, plans must be formed, equipment lists generated, training conducted and contingency scenarios researched. A lot of progress on the material side has been made regarding the Disaster Assistance Response Team but it is largely an ad hoc arrangement with very limited capabilities. The ‘feel good’ factor that Canadians get when they see it deployed abroad is fine but, for a major event like this inside Canada, much more is needed.

Responsiveness. A two-day wait period is too long when lives are in jeopardy. Military reaction times should be much lower for circumstances like this one. Analysis will show that logistics is a critical aspect of handling the mass movement of people along constricted transit routes. Portable logistics and flexible supply lines should be military specialties and they need to be alerted and ready for the moment the call for assistance arrived. A two-day wait does not ‘cut it’ when your fellow citizens are stranded and exposed to the elements. Don’t forget, this is still early May in northern Alberta. The heat wave is ending today and it will be cold at night. As an Albertan, I know that the prospect of sleeping in a dead car on the roadside with no equipment or warm clothing is not a good one.

Effectiveness. This morning, the news showed four Griffin helicopters that are being deployed into the disaster area. They are the lead element of the military response. They are being sent because, as Search and Rescue assets, they are the most ready to deploy. The problem is that they are small helicopters and do not have enough capacity to do much of significance. They are designed to rescue one person or very small groups from life threatening situations. This is not that situation. What is needed is large capacity, large volume ground and air transport to move massive amounts of food, water, fuel and people. Vehicles need to be cleared away from the roadside to open the way for the largest possible flow of people, equipment and supplies. Meanwhile, SAR capability in other areas has been significantly reduced to meet this urgent need. The military should be well-suited to all of these tasks but they are not properly organized for the mission.

The Defence Review should look at the Fort McMurray disaster and insist that changes be made. What we are seeing is a slow and ineffective response by an organization that is still primarily designed to fight heavy mechanized warfare in central Europe. One of the statements made by the Liberals during the election was that they intended to restructure the military to make it lighter and more responsive. It is probable that they were thinking of expeditionary deployments abroad. Now they clearly need to think about this from a more domestic perspective.

Readiness and Responsiveness issues do indicate a need for change in military structure, planning and preparation. But, Effectiveness issues mean that volumetric means are still needed to deal with problems of large scale and long duration. The government should not be fooled into thinking that changes to the defence forces will be cheap and easy. Logistics is not an easy or quick ‘fix’ and it has very little profile with the leadership, which is almost single-mindedly focused on combat capabilities. All the services resist the idea that Disaster Response should be added as an official mission because they know that it shifts the priority away from combat to logistical capabilities.

Oddly, logistical capacity is also the Achilles’ heel of the Canadian military for combat operations abroad. The effectiveness of our military is constrained by its very evident logistical limitations. This aspect of defence planning is fundamentally important and should not be overlooked during the Defence Review.

By Ken Hansen, CFPS Resident Research Fellow


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