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Banff, Canmore municipal staff deploy to wildfires with Canada Task Force 2

“Since Fort McMurray, it’s just been getting busier and busier, with wildfire in particular, but certainly we have deployed to floods and things like that as well.”

BANFF – Ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, several emergency services personnel from the Bow Valley were dispatched to fire-ravaged regions of the province as part of Alberta’s disaster response team throughout the tinder-dry spring and summer.

Canmore firefighter Jacqueline Hutchison was dispatched with Canada Task Force 2 (CAN-TF2) to Edson in May as part of the incident management team as wildfires scorched the area about 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, forcing evacuation of the community three times this summer.

Throughout August, three senior municipal staff from the Town of Banff were deployed to Yellowknife for a week each with CAN-TF2 to help essential workers protect the capital city of the Northwest Territories after 20,000 residents were evacuated.

“It’s really important to note that these types of incidents are increasing,” said Katherine Severson, Banff’s new director of emergency and protective services who has been with CAN-TF2 since 2016 and was deployed to Yellowknife last month for a week as well as the Nova Scotia wildfires earlier this summer.

“Since Fort McMurray, it’s just been getting busier and busier, with wildfires in particular, but certainly we have deployed to floods and things like that as well.”

Other municipal employees deployed included Banff’s deputy fire chief Keri Martens, who has been with CAN-TF2 since 2018 and was seconded to High Level in 2019 and the Yukon flood in 2021; and Banff’s assistant chief training and FireSmart officer Sean Lloyd, who joined Alberta's disaster response team in 2020-21, being deployed twice this summer to Parkland County and Yellowknife.

In addition, retired Banff fire chief Silvio Adamo was asked to go to Yellowknife as a special advisor.

Severson said Town of Banff staff attached to CAN-TF2 were supporting the municipal and territorial governments in managing the impacts of wildfires and evacuations in Yellowknife.

“We were in lockstep with them to prepare to protect the value assets and structures within the city of Yellowknife proper… to get the city ready should the fire reach its borders,” said Severson.

“By the time we got there, the city itself had been fully evacuated, but when all the residents leave, there’s still lots of issues… and we also have to be ready to evacuate ourselves.”

The evacuation order for the capital city of the Northwest Territories was lifted on Sept. 6 about three weeks after encroaching wildfires forced 20,000 Yellowknife residents to flee their homes by road and by air.

The wildfire that threatened the city for weeks is now considered held, meaning it wasn’t expected to grow unless conditions dramatically changed.

With about 400 essential workers and municipal staff remaining in the city following the Aug. 16 evacuation order, Severson described Yellowknife as a “ghost city”.

“I would describe it as quite an eerie feeling when you know the only vehicles on the road are response vehicles,” she said.

“You’ll see the city utility vehicles, you’ll see the military moving around, and then, of course, lots of helicopter and water bomber traffic on the days when they were clear enough from smoke to operate.”

Some of the work Banff staff were involved in centred around water management, for example, which was needed for structural protection sprinkler systems around the city.

On top of that, Severson said there was also law enforcement, wildlife and garbage management.

“The first week of the evacuation, certainly there was a lot more wildlife in town, so when the humans leave, the animals come in,” she said.

Luckily critical infrastructure such as power, utilities and phones all remained intact.

“That was a huge positive and that was obviously one of the goals, right, to manage those types of things,” Severson said.

“There were times, however, for example, where fiber cables were at risk because of the fire.”

CAN-TF2 includes 150 rescue specialists, doctors, paramedics, structural engineers, communications specialists, canine and technical searchers, logistics specialists, and command staff, who volunteer their time to train and prepare so that they can respond to demanding disaster and rescue situations.

The mandate is to deploy with up to 75 specialized team members and related equipment within four hours of incident notification. Upon arrival, the team is capable of operating 24 hours a day for up to 14 days with the equipment and supplies to be fully self-sustaining if required.

CAN-TF2 is one of six nationally recognized Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams in Canada. The additional three teams are located in Vancouver (CAN-TF1), Toronto (CAN-TF3) and Manitoba (CAN-TF4). Teams in Halifax (CAN-TF5) and Montreal (CAn-TF6) are still developing.

CAN-TF2’s members have been deployed to various emergencies, including the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire, the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and 2019 Chuckegg Creek Wildfire.

In addition, the disaster response team was deployed to the 2021 Yukon flood and the 2018 Saint John, New Brunswick flood.

“Canada Task Force 2 is self-defined as an all hazards’ disaster response team,” said Severson. “Typically our deployments are not longer than seven days per team.”

While Canmore’s Hutchison, who has previously been deployed to other disasters like the Fort McMurray wildfires, was the only one deployed from Canmore Fire-Rescue, others were ready to go if needed.

Canmore Fire Chief Lance Bushie said the experience gained and brought back to the fire department is immeasurable, noting wildfire is one of the biggest hazards facing the Bow Valley.

“It’s invaluable for them to be able to get exposed to large-scale responses, the inner workings of an incident management team and to have that exposure to wildfire and all the complexities that come from a wildfire emergency,” he said.

“The amount of experience and what they’ll learn, they are able to bring back to Canmore – where heaven forbid we have the same type of incident that threatens the community ... the extra training that comes with doing that role is completely invaluable.”

Severson concurred, noting there is a great benefit for staff who are members of Alberta's disaster response team having these opportunities.

“In my role as director of emergency services, to know I have that many people who have this experience is just fantastic,” she said.

“Quite frankly, it’s experience you can’t get unless you go and participate in these types of events because we bring back a lot of knowledge.”

Severson, whose other deployments with CAN-TF2 include the 2016 Fort McMurray fire, two deployments to High Level/Mackenzie County wildfires in 2019, the 2020 Fort McMurray ice jam flood and the 2023 Nova Scotia wildfires, said the experience gained by CAN-TF2 members also helps the Town of Banff be better prepared to support residents and visitors in the event of a disaster here.

She said there is also no doubt Banff may require CAN-TF2 support if an emergency incident ever happened.

“It’s really important to convey that rarely is it a capability issue, it’s a capacity issue,” she said.

“Take Yellowknife, they’ve had to evacuate their staff in many cases, often even some essential workers have to leave because they have to go with their families.”

In addition, municipal staff for the city were working upwards of 18-hour days for two weeks straight.

“When we go up and we backstop them, we actually can allow them some of that critical rest,” said Severson. “That’s invaluable.”