NNSL Photo/Graphic

Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size Email this articleE-mail this page

NNSL photo/graphic

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces Immediate Response Unit and Canadian Rangers work together to firesmart an area of Fort Smith on Aug. 25. - photo courtesy of Brad Brake

Soldiers train to handle NWT disasters
Operation Nanook sees Canadian soldiers set up for exercises in Fort Smith, Inuvik

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Monday, August 31, 2015

Residents of Fort Smith, officials from the territorial and municipal governments, Canadian Armed Forces soldiers and the RCMP have been learning first hand this month how to deal with a major emergency like a forest fire.

The second phase of Operation Nanook wrapped up in Fort Smith on Aug. 28. The annual exercise got underway in both Fort Smith and Inuvik on Aug. 17.

Ivan Russell, manager of emergency services in the public safety division of the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said the exercise is an opportunity and a test for various departments and personnel to co-ordinate their crisis responses and iron out any kinks in their communications links and information flows.

"We did a hazard identification risk assessment just over a year ago which indicated wildfires are our number one risk in the territories. That validated our thinking, intuitively we know that," Russell said. "When we were asked if we wanted to participate in Operation Nanook we went forward with the idea that we would like to practice our protocols in regards to a wildfire scenario."

One of they key goals was to practice an integrated emergency response, according to Russell.

"Engaging the federal, territorial and community levels of government and to exercise components of our NWT emergency plan in supporting the evacuation of one our larger communities," he said. "One of the scenarios, the exercise was that we were overwhelmed by wildfires in the NWT and we asked for federal assistance to support (the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) in their wildfire fighting activities. The military was engaged in training and Fire Smarting activities in Fort Smith."

There was also training on an evacuation of the community, said Russell, adding this exercise dealt with a scenario whereby the military would aid in the evacuation.

Fort Smith Mayor Brad Brake said the mock evacuation scenario conducted on Aug. 26 took on a decidedly realistic tone.

"We had a couple of our seniors role-playing as belligerent homeowners. Their direction was to be belligerent and not co-operate. One lady, I'm told, could have won an Academy Award," Brake said.

The soldiers, who didn't realize she was acting, took it upon themselves to calm her down and explain why it was that she had to leave her home, Brake said.

"Her role was to remain belligerent to the point that we'd have to call in bylaw and or RCMP, but the people who were on site, the armed forces ... talked her down," Brake said.

He added that even though the mock scenario didn't quite go according to plan it still turned out to be a tremendous learning experience for the soldiers and citizens involved.

"The community is really embracing the armed forces being here and it has been a really good exercise," Brake said. A similar sentiment regarding the exercises was expressed by Inuvik's acting Mayor Jim McDonald.

"They've set up right in the middle of town. They were working on disaster response like oil spills and search and rescue. The navy had two of their frigates or ships in the Beaufort for an exercise as well," McDonald said.

Like the exercises in Fort Smith, the military was testing their communications systems and flows of information with other departments.

"It gives us a sense of reassurance that they have the capability to respond quickly to those types of situations," McDonald said. "It went a long way towards reassuring us that they are there and they are capable and will respond if need. It also gave out community a better understanding of the military."

Officials from the military itself are not talking to the media about Operation Nanook, citing the federal election campaign and the Department of National Defense's need to remain politically impartial.

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.