Military steps up with wildfire response
Peter Mallett – Lookout
As more than 565 wildfires burned across British Columbia in mid-August, Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Esquimalt’s defence community stepped up its relief efforts in the ongoing provincial state of emergency.
Approximately 40 personnel from Joint Task Force Pacific (JTFP) were covering around-the-clock shifts at Dockyard’s Battle Watch Operations Centre. They were acting in support of the Province of British Columbia as part of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) ongoing disaster relief effort known as Operation LENTUS.
The provincial government made its formal request to the Federal Government for wildfire assistance on August 12. JTFP was playing a key role in directing and coordinating approximately 400 personnel and military equipment in support of that effort.
Captain (Navy) Steve Jorgensen, JTFP Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations, says the scope of this year’s forest fires is significant.
At the time of writing this article, no fewer than 2000 properties were under an evacuation order, and around 12 000 on evacuation alert. A thick blanket of smoke from the fires has prompted prolonged air quality advisories across Western Canada.
Approximately 300 soldiers from 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group from CFB Edmonton were deployed on August 15 and 16, and were stationed at the Vernon Cadet Camp, and in Merritt. This Land Task Force was conducting mop-up activities, making sure extinguished wild fires don’t re-ignite. Deployed in small groups, each team of 20 soldiers works under a supervisor, also known as a Strike Lead, from the B.C. Wildfire Service.
Multiple teams focused on the 633-hectare Gottfriedson Mountain Fire, west of West Kelowna, which was brought under control.
Capt(N) Jorgensen’s multidisciplinary team kept busy maintaining situational awareness of the wildfires, working with deployed military members and municipal, provincial and federal authorities. JTFP Liaison Officers are embedded in the Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre in Saanich, and the Provincial Region Emergency Operations Centres in Kamloops and Prince George. They advise the province on how the CAF might best assist.
The effort provided the Commander of JTFP, Rear-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, with the information needed to direct Op LENTUS.
Capt(N) Jorgensen says this year’s CAF wildfire response efforts are markedly different than last year’s, and that’s primarily due to geography. In 2017, the CAF wildfire response began in early July, and mainly focussed on providing support to Williams Lake and the Cariboo Region.
“Last year’s fires threatened larger population centres and that meant the province could move most of its civilian fire fighters around by road,” said Capt(N) Jorgensen. “But this year our aircraft have been key to moving equipment and people around the province to several fires in several remote locations, where many times, there are no roads to get there.”
To address those concerns, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Air Task Force was deployed to Smithers and Comox. Pilots and their ground crews used a CH-146 Griffon and a CH-124 Sea King, as well as a CC-130 J Model Hercules cargo plane. The aircraft were also being used to support medical evacuations, and to move people in remote communities out of harm’s way.
For more information and updates, visit the Operation LENTUS web page.
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