When disaster strikes twice: Wood Buffalo’s resilience and solidarity

Wildfires in 2016, flooding in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 - the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Canada has proven its resilience and solidarity during these back-to-back disasters.

Wood Buffalo has learned a lot from its experience in one of the worst fires in Canadian history four years ago, when 88,000 people had to be evacuated. There was a similar emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis: Wood Buffalo has prioritized solutions to address the needs of the vulnerable, especially those living in poverty, seniors, indigenous peoples and immigrants. These solutions include:

  • tracking and monitoring individuals experiencing homelessness in order to provide support;
  • being proactive with mental health support, particularly for those already feeling isolated in their daily lives; and 
  • pivoting existing resources to meet emerging needs.
As we move forward to respond to emerging issues worldwide it is necessary to identify the different ways in which vulnerable populations may be affected and work with diverse groups to support appropriate solutions.
Caitlin Downie, Supervisor, Neighbourhood and Community Development at the Regional Municipality

While authorities have asked the public to stay home – this directive means little to those who have no home, putting them at higher risk with regard to COVID-19. Wood Buffalo provided hygiene, cleaning supplies and activity kits for this population to mitigate the risk of contraction and to encourage people to stay in whatever facility they are using rather than frequenting congregated areas.  

Tracking consisted of providing phones and minute cards to the homeless, with regular check-ins conducted by caseworkers. This supported mental health needs, access to food and hygiene, but also aided early symptom detection to prevent further spread of the virus. 

Post-wildfire mental health was clearly a major challenge in Wood Buffalo, particularly for those already marginalized. As the pandemic hit, it was important to focus on easy and accessible online support for seniors, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ2+ population. Agencies launched wellness checks and online programmes such as painting classes and book readings. 

In the aftermath of the wildfire, the Municipality launched a Vulnerable Persons Registry for vulnerable groups requiring support during a natural disaster; they would be called, given important information, and aided in evacuation if needed. The registry was activated to provide regular check-ins, information and referrals, and mental health support.

Lastly, one of the biggest lessons from the wildfire was using existing programmes and pivoting them to meet emerging needs. It is both cost-effective and efficient, as the structure and relationships are already in place. For example, municipal staff who could not work from home were re-deployed as Isolation Angels, providing food hampers and activity kits to those in self-isolation. 

As if this was not enough, a second state of emergency, atop the one implemented for COVID-19, was issued by Wood Buffalo. An ice jam caused river waters to dramatically flood causing mandatory evacuations. The Vulnerable Persons Registry was used to evacuate those with disabilities, seniors and others with barriers. Staff was able to check-in with each person, encourage them to evacuate, and notify search and rescue if needed. Translators for important emergency evacuation notices were provided, who were key in addressing language barriers for the evacuees. Lastly, a curb-side support centre was established, with phones and laptops for the vulnerable to register for Red Cross and other supports.


See also


As a member of the Canadian Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities within UNESCO’s International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities – ICCAR, Wood Buffalo has responded through intersectional and equity-focused lenses, and bolstered its tried-and-tested initiatives from other disasters. 

Launched in 2004, ICCAR is a city-level platform that undertakes a wide range of initiatives – from policymaking and capacity-building to awareness-raising. It advocates for global solidarity and collaboration to promote inclusive urban development free from all forms of discrimination.

The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNESCO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout the article do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning its frontiers or boundaries.