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Fort McMurray Wildfire: Redefining and Broadening Community Resilience

May 16, 2016
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

During The Conference Board of Canada’s Resilience 2016 conference in Toronto, the need for building community resilience to help us cope with a range of emergencies was emphasized during almost every presentation. Community resilience is a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations. Public Safety Canada, through its 2016 Emergency Preparedness Week campaign, also emphasized the need for Canadians to take action to protect themselves and their families during emergencies, a key aspect of building community resilience. But community resilience goes far beyond just protecting yourself and your family.

The Fort McMurray wildfire forced local residents to flee with very little notice. Many grabbed what little they could, piled into their vehicles, and headed out of the city. However, not everyone had enough gas in their tanks to make it to their destinations. What started emerging were stories of people dumping their prized possessions and what little they had managed to save, so that they could make room in their vehicles to take others with them. The community of Fort McMurray came to the aid of its own members, exhibiting its resilience and ability to withstand the tragedy that was unfolding.

As Fort McMurray evacuees made their way to other communities, such as Lac La Biche, Edmonton, and Calgary, the outpouring of support from these host communities was incredible. Donations flowed, volunteers helped, and people were opening their homes to welcome the evacuees. The concept of community in this case had expanded—it had gone beyond Fort McMurray and grown to encompass multiple communities in Alberta, all helping to ensure that the community of Fort McMurray was able to withstand the crisis that it was facing.

This community continued to expand beyond Alberta and into the rest of Canada. From St. John’s to Vancouver, donations were being made and goods were being collected to assist the evacuees from Fort McMurray. The outpouring of support from across Canada for those affected demonstrates that Fort McMurray residents were simply seen as part of a wider community. This community that encompassed Canada was pulling together to help the residents of Fort McMurray make it through their emergency.

While it is necessary and very important to ensure that we encourage individuals and families to be prepared as part of building local community resilience, we also need to recognize that a key role can be played by the wider sense of community that exists at the regional, provincial, territorial, and even country-wide levels. Individual resilience and local community resilience can help, but sometimes this can only get you so far because of the catastrophic nature of the emergency that you face.

Perhaps we need to rethink—and, potentially, redefine—our concept of community resilience from what we have witnessed with Fort McMurray. Going back to the definition of community resilience I mentioned earlier, the ability of the community in Fort McMurray to withstand and recover from the wildfire is being shaped by its place within the wider community of Alberta and Canada. Similarly, the availability of resources to achieve this is enhanced in many ways by what this broader community can provide. When we define community resilience, we should also think about how individuals and communities fit within the context of the larger communities around them. The links that they build and their ability to call on their broader community for assistance and support seems to be a very important factor in building resilience for individual communities. This does not mean that we should abrogate individual communities’ responsibilities to build their own resilience—rather we need to situate that within the larger community context that may extend well beyond a single municipality or region.

The lesson from Fort McMurray? When building community resilience, you need to look inside within your own community as well as outside within the context of your broader community.

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The Burning Question: The Future of Wildland Fire Management
The Conference Board of Canada, August 6, 2015
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Related Conference

Intergovernmental Forum on Risk Management 2016: Practical Approaches for a Complex World
Monday, October 3–Tuesday, October 4 2016, Shaw Centre, Ottawa, Ontario

Related Research

Spontaneous Volunteers: Community Participation in Disaster Response and Recovery
The Conference Board of Canada, 54 pages, April 11, 2016

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