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EDITORIAL: Transparency, independently done needed for prescribed burn after-action report

Failure is an inevitability in life. Several times every day, people and organizations are bound to make mistakes that can be made worse by doubling down or taking pause and learning from the error.
Cartoon by Patrick LaMontagne/

Failure is an inevitability in life.

Several times every day, people and organizations are bound to make mistakes that can be made worse by doubling down or taking pause and learning from the error.

For Parks Canada, the decisions they make in the coming weeks on a prescribed burn that got out of control will be key to how people trust the federal agency in the region.

On Wednesday (May 3), the Compound Meadows prescribed burn jumped from west to east on Banff Avenue and was eventually put under control at three hectares.

Fortunately, and in addition to numerous local resources on hand, the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange – a 12-day training exercise with female fire specialists from around the world – was also on-site to aid in the quick on-the-ground response.

One only has to look at the multiple videos or photos of sections of Banff Avenue – one of two entrances into the townsite – engulfed in 10-metre or higher flames to witness the seriousness of the situation.

A full after-action review will be completed in the coming weeks, according to Parks Canada, but with it literally taking place on the doorsteps of the premier tourism town in Canada any less than full transparency, openness and done so independently should be deemed a failure.

Though Parks Canada no doubt has some of the top experts on the continent when it comes to anything fire-related, an independent review would add to both the seriousness of the task, taking on full accountability and how the public receives it.

For Parks Canada, it’s the second time in six months that a prescribed burn has got out-of-control. The Dormer Valley prescribed burn ended up getting out of control last October and was only recently deemed extinguished after it had burned more than 600 hectares of forest after it spread to provincial land.

Each year Parks Canada successfully handles several prescribed burns in its national parks. Their fire specialists are among the best in the world, but fair or unfair, it’s ultimately the failures that gain the most attention.

While the Compound Meadows prescribed fire thankfully left no injuries, it did end up destroying important private property.

Three sheds at the Banff Light Horse Association were destroyed in flames, the iconic Bill Peyto entrance sign that was on Banff Avenue is left in pieces and the historic Brewster family lost irreplaceable heirlooms that not only represent personal memories but are a piece of Banff’s history.

Banff Rocky Mountain Resort and Mount View Barbecue were also evacuated, while parts of Mountain View Cemetery were also damaged.

Stables can be rebuilt and a new Bill Peyto sign should be created to welcome visitors, but the loss of personal property – especially that from past generations – is in many cases impossible to replace.

The easiest fix would’ve been to immediately reach out to those impacted by the fire, which failed to happen. A public apology by Parks Canada didn’t come until four days after the damage had occurred.

As it was happening, information from Parks Canada was also slow to come out compared to the Town of Banff, Banff Fire Department, Banff RCMP and local organizations.

But no one ultimately controls the message. The message, as it should be at all times, should be the truth and what best benefits the public.

Among the worst outcomes is the Compound Meadows prescribed fire being put off for another year. The important burn was meant to improve habitat in the wildlife corridor and add extra safety for the townsite from potential wildfire.

The postponement leaves Banff vulnerable to the threat of wildfire until another attempt at the prescribed burn is made in the fall, in 2024 or beyond.

Parks Canada is now in full control of the next steps in informing the public about what happened with the prescribed burn.

People can forgive mistakes, but will never forget if attempts to mislead are made or full openness doesn’t take place.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

About the Author: Rocky Mountain Outlook

The Rocky Mountain Outlook is Bow Valley's No. 1 source for local news and events.
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