When a fire ripped through the town of Slave Lake five years ago, wildfire officials recognized that the catastrophic blaze may be "the forerunner of future fire seasons" in Alberta, a template for the kind of disaster now playing out in Fort McMurray.
"I think Slave Lake was a wake-up call," said Alberta wildland fire expert Mike Flannigan. "People were aware that this can happen, and hopefully people were aware that it was not a one-off and it could happen again."
A report released after the Slave Lake fire of May, 2011, made 21 recommendations geared at preventing, mitigating and responding to similar wildfires in the future. Dr. Flannigan said he believes the Alberta government has been sincere in its efforts to institute the recommendations in the Flat Top Complex wildfire report, but he declined to comment on whether enough has been done to address the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the five years since the Slave Lake blaze.
"Things are raw right now," he said.
One of the recommendations in the report was to reduce delays in getting help from other agencies by starting resource requests before they were needed, "especially in anticipation of extreme wildfire risk conditions." Another was for "expanded attack firefighting crews" that could deal with complex wildfires.
Other recommendations included lengthening the fire season, improving communication and training, and increasing wildfire prevention measures.
The report acknowledged the growing risk of wildfires due to extreme weather, an aging – and in some cases over-mature – forest and increasing development in forested land.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry spokesman Mike Long said steps were being taken to address the elevated fire risk in the province before this week's blaze, but that no one was available to speak about those steps on Wednesday given the ongoing crisis situation in Fort McMurray.
The chair of the Flat Top Complex report, Bill Sweeney, who is now assistant deputy minister in the public security division of the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, could not be reached for comment.
The Alberta government committed nearly $1-billion for wildfire prevention and management in 2014, but the budget released last month saw $14.7-million cut from provincial firefighting contracts, set to begin in August.
Air Spray vice-president Paul Lane, whose company is currently dropping fire-retardant on the Fort McMurray blaze, said firefighters were having a difficult time coping with the fires already on the go, before the latest disaster.
On Wednesday, with Fort McMurray still in flames, Mr. Lane said he didn't have time to talk about what the budget cuts could mean for future firefighting efforts in the province.
"We're in the heat of this fire," he said. "We're about saving lives."
Air Spray has also dispatched planes to Northern B.C., where raging fires near Fort St. John have residents on alert and ready to evacuate.
Conair Aerial Firefighting also has planes working on the Fort McMurray blaze.
Dr. Flannigan said one of the most significant changes after the Slave Lake fire has been a move away from full suppression of wildfires to allowing natural burns in areas away from property and communities, recognizing that fire is a natural part of the boreal forest.
He said other steps, such as removing all coniferous trees from within a two-kilometre radius of a community, may also be seriously considered in the wake of the Fort McMurray fire.
"It's not a great day to be an optimist with Fort McMurray burning, but longer term, I believe we're trying and we're moving in the right direction," he said. "And hopefully some day we'll get it right."