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Six-month military operation would follow major B.C. earthquake

Rescue workers search for missing people at the site of a landslide triggered by an earthquake in southwestern Japan, 19 April 2016. .
Rescue workers search for missing people at the site of a landslide triggered by an earthquake in southwestern Japan, 19 April 2016. . EPA/KIMIMASA MAYAMA

Editor’s notes:

  • This story was updated on Feb. 16 with comments from DND.  
  • In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly attributed a quote to Paul Crober. That quote was said by John Selkirk. The story has been corrected. We regret the error.

The odds are against a serious earthquake on the Pacific Coast, but not as much as we would like – a military plan for dealing with the aftermath assesses the chance of a significant quake in the next 10 years as 4.5 per cent for Victoria, and 2.5 per cent for Vancouver.

“Operation Panorama,” the military response to a Pacific Coast earthquake, would be a six-month operation and could involve a mandatory callout of reservists, similar to what would happen in a major war, the plan says.

The 219-page plan for Operation Panorama was released to Global News under access-to-information laws.

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After a major Pacific Coast quake, “the casualty level is expected to be very high,” the plan says.

“It is highly likely that such a catastrophic earthquake would quickly overload the resources of provincial and municipal authorities … it will take days to weeks to restore critical infrastructure.”

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The quake could damage bridges and cause landslides that would cut Vancouver off from other parts of the country, the report says.

WATCH: Nearly 800,000 people across the province, including Vancouver’s mayor Gregor Robertson, did the Great BC Shakeout and set a new record. The province-wide earthquake drill is designed to remind people what to do if and when the big one hits. Jennifer Palma reports.

“An earthquake presents a ‘come as you are’ scenario,” the plan says. Planners anticipate a range of needs the military could meet, including providing mobile kitchens, water purification, generators, helicopters, tents to house refugees, ships and recovery of bodies.

Troops will start the operation without weapons, but that could change if police ask for armed support, the plan says. Training for, or conducting, “crowd confrontation operations” will not happen without the chief of defence staff’s approval.

READ: Major B.C. quake could have devastating, long-term effects on Canadian economy: report

A section of the plan written by legal officers cautions commanders to be cautious about civilian police requests for armed assistance, especially for help from military police.

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“Although requests for military police assistance may come from civilian police, such requests should, wherever practical, be denied,” the plan says.

However, despite the apocalyptic scenario a major quake would present, the plan largely assumes that full- and part-time military forces already in B.C. can handle the situation, and refers only in passing to the possibility that they may be affected by the same disaster that’s affected everybody else.

Whether that’s realistic depends on how serious the quake is, says Paul Crober, a retired colonel who went on to have several senior roles in emergency planning in B.C..

After a big earthquake “the reserve brigade in Vancouver will be less capable to do things, through no fault of their own,” he said. “If they’re not affected, they’ll move on to it. If they are affected, they’ll do what they can.”

READ: New report estimates Metro Vancouver earthquake could kill 10,000

There hasn’t been a large-scale regular army presence in B.C. since the controversial closure of CFB Chilliwack in the 1990s. That may have a silver lining in this case, since the regular troops who were moved to Edmonton at that time won’t become disaster victims themselves, Crober says.

“That’s why the army would say ‘Well, it’s bad that we have to move out of B.C., but from a purely earthquake perspective and nothing else, it’s not a bad thing, in that their capabilities remain unaffected, and they can get back in, if road, rail and ports are available to accept them.’”

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On the other hand, it means that part-time reservists are the only force on the B.C. mainland that can immediately respond to a major emergency.

“Panorama is a realistic plan for a catastrophically destructive earthquake response in British Columbia,” Esquimalt-based defence spokesperson Katelyn Moores wrote in an e-mail. “(Joint Task Force Pacific) is aware that many CAF members in B.C. would be victims of the disaster and unable to assist in the relief response.”

The plan also flags a long-standing issue for the reserves — part-time soldiers, often in senior roles, who are first responders in their civilian jobs. In a civil emergency, it’s not clear whether they would be available to the military. (The plan assumes they won’t be.)

“Those folks tend to make good soldiers, and they do rise up,” says John Selkirk, a retired lieutenant-colonel who heads Reserves 2000, a lobby group for the army reserves.

“But it is a problem. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s that many. I would hazard a guess that the percentage of first responders is probably no more than five or 10 per cent.”

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“It can be an issue,” Crober said. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, he points out, was a detective with the Vancouver police at the same time that he ran an army reserve unit.

“In an emergency, his first job would have been to show up at the police force, when he was commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment.”

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Some police forces, like the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police, have in the past barred officers from being reservists for this reason, Crober says.

How many reservists who are civilian first responders wouldn’t be available in an emergency? The military can’t say.

“Given the short timeline involved with this media inquiry, 39 Canadian Brigade Group (the reserve brigade based in Vancouver) was unable to determine the exact number of its members who are employed as civilian first responders,” Moores wrote.

READ: Click here to read the plan (219-page .pdf)

The plan also doesn’t mention any role for supplementary reservists, people on a list of trained ex-soldiers who, when they left the military, said they’d be available in an emergency.

This capability has been neglected, Selkirk says.

“This is a criminally negligent thing that’s happened,” he charges. “They let that thing absolutely slide. They just won’t put any effort into keeping it up.”

“A domestic natural disaster response operation does not fall under the responsibility of the Supplementary Reserve. They are only placed into active service by the Governor in Council when there is a serious threat to the defence of Canada,” Moores wrote.

Three staging areas have been chosen for Operation Panorama, one on Vancouver Island, one on the Lower Mainland and another in the southern interior. Their locations were censored in the documents Global News received under a provision of access-to-information law that bars the release of information that “could reasonably be expected to be injurious to … the defence of Canada.”

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READ: Does recent seismic activity indicate an earthquake coming to B.C.?

On the whole, the document is very lightly censored. Defence officials blocked the release of some phone numbers and radio frequencies, and descriptions of three routes across British Columbia. Also, following a quake a senior army reserve commander in Vancouver is supposed to assess something, but what he is supposed to assess has been censored.

In the meantime, Selkirk says, reserve units don’t have the vehicles and equipment they would need to respond after an earthquake.

WATCH: Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson released his 2016 report on Tuesday and was critical of the lack of training and equipment provided to Canada’s army reserves.

Auditor General report critical of Army reserve training, equipment
Auditor General report critical of Army reserve training, equipment

“They’ll do what they can,” he said. “The problem is that the army has failed to keep the reserve units with a sufficient stock of things that they would need in those emergencies. They don’t have enough trucks. Right now they don’t even have radios. Units are using their own cellphones when they have to go out and do a tactical exercise somewhere, but in an earthquake half of the cell towers would fall down.”

The federal auditor general raised the same concern last year, saying that reservists called out for domestic missions, like flood control, “did not always have access to key equipment … we found many instances of key equipment lacking, such as reconnaissance vehicles, command posts, and communications equipment.”

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“You could be totally cut off from the rest of Canada, even by air, if the runways are damaged,” Selkirk said. “It could take a few days to get stuff there. If reserve units held stocks of what they might need, it would be a lot better.”