PANEL Fort McMurray Fires

MONDAY, APRIL 10, 3:00-4:30PM

Tara Clarke, Executive Director, Fort McMurray SPCA
Terra Johnston, Executive Director, Alberta SPCA
Jeffrey Simpkins, Animal Control Supervisor, Bylaw Services, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

On May 1, 2016 a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta. On May 3, it swept through the community, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history and destroying 2,400 homes and other buildings. The fire spread across approximately 1.5 million acres before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016.

The Fort McMurray wildfire represents the largest known multi-agency animal emergency response in Canada’s history. In general, emergency response is the organizing, coordinating and directing of available resources in order to respond to an event and bring the emergency under control. When Fort McMurray residents were ordered to evacuate on May 3, they had so little time that many of them were forced to leave their pets behind. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the Fort McMurray SPCA did their best to care for these animals on-site but, by May 6, it was clear that no one would be returning to Fort McMurray for weeks. Wood Buffalo asked the Alberta SPCA to set up a care centre in Edmonton to receive the animal evacuees and reconnect them with their owners.

The first transport of animals arrived on May 9. Over the next 12 days, a total of 1,192 animals came to Edmonton. Secondary care centres were then set up through the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society, Edmonton Humane Society, Calgary Humane Society, Red Deer & District SPCA and Meika’s Bird House. When the reunion process ended on June 30, only 38 animals remained unclaimed.

This plenary panel will explore this animal emergency response from three perspectives; government management, on-site animal welfare agency response and off-site animal welfare agency response. Each organization will present on how their organization responded to the emergency, what successes and challenges they experienced and what key learnings they see as valuable in preparing for the next emergency response in Canada, including communications.

Three Key Learnings:
1. The roles and perspectives of three different organizations involved in the Fort McMurray animal emergency response.
2. Successes and challenges during the Fort McMurray wildfires.
3. Wisdom gained from this disaster response and how it can be applied to future situations.

As Executive Director of the Fort McMurray SPCA (FMSPCA), Tara Clarke oversees the organization’s administration, activities development, programs, operations and strategic plan implementation, including marketing, community outreach and all of the organization’s collaborative relationships. The FMSPCA is the only local animal shelter in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, caring for and sheltering up to a thousand homeless, abused and neglected animals every year, in addition to satellite services and supports throughout the rural and reserve areas. At 66,361 square kilometres, the region is the second-largest municipality in Canada.

Last year, Tara led the FMSPCA team, in concert with other rescue organizations that were under the leadership of the RMWB, to play a key role in the pet rescue efforts during the May wildfires that ravaged the region. FMSPCA was the only agency providing pivotal programs, supports and services for pets and pet-owning households throughout the region’s urban and rural areas. Emergency and relief services directly impacted more than 5,000 animals in need and more than 1,950 pet owners.

In addition to being a hub for regional relief services and humane owner surrender to prevent pet homelessness and suffering, Tara collaborated with key members of her team to produce a series of community impact surveys, the second of which has just completed, to measure the impacts of the wildfire on animal welfare and pet owners, to determine emerging needs and program gaps, as well as to measure important feedback from our community members, who survived the second natural disaster experienced in Wood Buffalo since 2013 and the largest natural disaster in Canada’s history.

Terra Johnston has worked at the Alberta SPCA since 1993, but her relationship with the organization began years earlier as a volunteer. She became the Executive Director in 2004, and her experience working in a variety of roles within the Alberta SPCA helped give her the deep understanding of the organization’s operational needs that strengthen her leadership. Terra has built strong relationships between the Alberta SPCA and other animal, law enforcement and emergency response agencies as she has directed the organization’s activities in animal protection and humane education, as well as its involvement in the Fort McMurray animal rescue. She shares her home in St. Albert, Alberta, with her husband Darren, their two children, Davis and Reghan, their two cats, Seamus and Ghilly, and their dog Bochy.

Animals have always been a passion for Jeff Simpkins, who was raised immersed in farming, horses and family pets. Working in the 90s as a Silviculture Surveyor on the BC coast, his experiences with wildlife habitat deepened his dedication to addressing the needs of animals through responsible forest management. Returning to Ontario provided him with an opportunity to support the Peterborough Humane Society board and to volunteer as an OSPCA investigator. In 2002, he completed the University of Guelph’s Agriculture Program with an Honours degree in Animal Science and was awarded the Intervet Poultry Health Award. Work continued in Guelph as farm manager for The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, and as a part-time clinic veterinarian technician. In 2004, he ventured into commercial agriculture and quickly developed a specialization in herd health in large commercial dairy and hog operations. From pre- and post-harvest silviculture plans to help address habitat needs of deer, bear or spotted owls in the BC coastal forests to commercial herd health, best management practices and responsibility are Jeff’s foundational philosophy in animal care. The challenge of building a Municipal Animal Control Team in Northern Alberta began in the late summer of 2014. Ultimately servicing one of the largest and most diverse municipalities in Canada, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, this opportunity led him to be involved one of the largest natural disasters and domestic pet rescues in Canadian history.