Kelowna's city manager lends an experienced hand with Fort Mac recovery efforts

A trailer park damaged by the wildfires is seen in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Monday, May 9, 2016.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

KELOWNA - City manager Ron Mattiussi is all business on the phone from Edmonton, where he is assisting the Alberta government with the aftermath of the devastating Fort McMurray fire, but that doesn't stop him from reminiscing about the 2003 fire which ripped through Kelowna.

“I’m here mostly to help with the transition to recovery,” he says. “There’s been a little bit about re-entry but we are really focusing on the recovery plan. Obviously this was a big incident with lots of homes and thousands of people involved so it’s challenging.”

It’s only when he thinks back to the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire and all the assistance Kelowna received from other communities and governments, that his voice breaks.

“I remember walking into the fire hall yard and seeing fire trucks from Calgary and Edmonton and all over the place,” Mattiussi says. “Funny how thinking about it brings back all these emotions.”

In August 2003, Mattiussi found himself as acting city manager in the unenviable position of directing the local emergency response, while the city manager at the time, Ron Born, happened to be out of reach on vacation.

During Firestorm Friday, Aug. 22, 2003, with a stiff wind pushing the monster fire across the South Slopes, Mattiussi came within a few hours of ordering the evacuation of the entire city.

“I remember they kept asking me every 15 minutes if it was time to evacuate the hospital (Kelowna General) which is well inside the city. They said they had to know because it would take four hours to get everybody out.”

That evacuation order was never issued but as it was, more than 27,000 residents were ordered to leave their homes, some of them with just a few minutes notice as the fire tore through several residential subdivisions, destroying 239 houses.

Nothing in his previous experience had prepared him for his unexpected role, but a quiet vote of confidence at the time from Kelowna Fire Department chief Gerry Zimmerman helped immensely.

“He came up to me and said ‘you’ll do fine’. You have leadership experience and we’ll help you get through the technical stuff,” he recalls. “That sure helped.”

Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi.
Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi.
Image Credit: File photo

Today, June 1, residents began a phased re-entry of the fire-ravaged northern Alberta community and Mattiussi can’t help but note the similarities and the differences.

“We are similar in size but Fort McMurray is a much more isolated community. Lots of our citizens just moved in with friends in other parts of the city but many of these people have had to move hundreds of kilometres away,” he says. “They are spread out all over the province and even into other provinces.”

Mattiussi has yet to step foot right in Fort McMurray and is unlikely to do so anytime soon.

“It’s still locked down, still a fire hazard, with little or no accommodation,” he says. “There’s firefighters from around the world. There’s 400 insurance adjusters up there. We can do a better job assisting them from here (Edmonton) than taking up scarce accommodation.”

Mattiussi is one of four officials sent from B.C. to assist with the recovery plan and says their role is to support the local emergency operations centre by trying to provide them with whatever they ask for.

“We procure what they want, be it expertise or advice or whatever they need,” he says. “It’s similar to our system (in B.C) where we support the decisions made by the incident commander on the ground. He calls the shots and they are supported by the emergency operations centre.”

In a sign of what lays ahead for the residents of Fort McMurray, Mattiussi says one recent request was for 30 mental health workers to be sent to the fire-scarred city.

His secondment ends this week but Mattiussi is quick to point out the importance of his role.

“I’m just a very, very small piece of big, big effort,” he adds.

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