LETHBRIDGE: It was an error - but one with the best of intentions. That's what Lethbridge Regional Police Chief Tom McKenzie says about a mistake he said some of his officers made during Sunday's grass fire that firefighters held back just outside city limits near the west side.
McKenzie spoke publicly about the issue during a police commission meeting Wednesday, saying some police evacuated homes on the west side when they weren't supposed to.
"We started to evacuate some people when we shouldn't have and it was very clearly an error on our behalf," McKenzie said near the end of the meeting. "That said, it was an error with the best interest of our public in mind. But it was a mistake that was made and a misinterpretation of some of the information that was being spread around."
He's organized an internal enquiry into the matter that he hopes to finish by the end of the week, looking for more information about how many people were affected and who told officers to evacuate homes when no official evacuation order was issued at any time for residents within city limits that night. McKenzie also added there have been no formal complaints launched in relation to the evacuations so far.
Regardless of any hiccups that may have happened along the way, LRPS police commission chairperson Doug McLaughlin took a moment during the meeting to pass along several compliments from the public about police involvement during the fire Sunday. He said their efforts directing traffic and helping fire officials were exemplary, considering the difficult circumstances - heavy winds, clouds of smoke and ash, as well as a steady stream of non-essential traffic or "rubberneckers," which clogged the streets to take pictures or video and added to the confusion.
McKenzie said it was likely a combination of those conditions that created the miscommunication for police. "When you're busy and you're standing in wind and the smoke is blowing and people are coming, you often don't hear a full message or don't hear things," he told Country 95 News Wednesday. "I'm satisfied that this is a mistake. We're going to work through it, we're going to learn from it and we're going to improve."
Country 95 News spoke to one of the residents who was evacuated, and he says he was actually glad for the help. "It was actually a relief to have an officer come to the door and say what was happening," said Lethbridge resident Jaime Vedres, whose parents' home is located in the Aberdeen neighbourhood, which backs onto a section of farm land right at the edge of where the fire eventually stopped. "Looking out the back window and seeing the fire right there, I really wanted some answers as to what to do. So in the end, even though it was a mistake to tell people to evacuate, I'm glad someone came to the door and said - as a precaution, you need to evacuate."
The City of Lethbridge is also organizing a debrief of the emergency operations and messaging during that night, which regional police plan to attend. That session is expected sometime in the next couple weeks.