Alberta’s wildfire season is fast approaching and the Town of Banff, along with Parks Canada, is making sure its prepared for a worst-case scenario.
Emergency officials conducted a mock wildfire exercise on Wednesday with fire crews, rescue teams and communications departments from across southern Alberta.
The scenario: a fast-moving wildfire approaching the community.
For the 150 personnel taking part in the drill, it was an opportunity to be prepared, just in case such a situation presents itself as conditions begin to dry heading into the summer season.
“We have to be prepared to react very quickly and work with our partners, and this exercise emphasizes that,” said Silvio Adamo, chief of the Banff Fire Department.
Banff’s town hall was transformed into an emergency command centre, with representatives from multiple agencies set up at different stations working on communications plans and providing updates to the simulated threat.
The exercise simulated the emergency response to an active wildfire over a three-day period, all condensed into a single day.
Just down the street from the town hall, another command post was set up, surrounded by emergency vehicles, EMS and crews from Canada Task Force 2.
Supplied by the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, the command post trailer served as the central location for crews to track the wildfire.
Hunched over maps and computers, with emergency personnel coming in and out for updates, wildfire experts marked data points throughout the region and relayed the information to the command centre at the town hall, and to crews on the ground.
“If we prepare for the worst, we can manage any other circumstance that comes our way that might not be the worst circumstance.”
Parks Canada also took part in the exercise, providing personnel and expertise on the surrounding area.
Crews couldn’t say how this year’s wildfire season will play out, but Parks Canada crews have already been preparing for the upcoming wildfire season, working to create barriers in the surrounding area for any incoming wildfire threat.
“Landscape-level fuel modification, the West Sulphur project… that will all help to reduce the wildfire risk,”said Jane Park, forest and vegetation specialist with Parks Canada. “Our prescribed fires all go to create a resilient landscape that, if we do have wildfires, we are prepared and have strategic fire breaks where we need them to protect the community.”
In 2016, a wildfire in Fort McMurray — known as “The Beast” — burned nearly 590,000 hectares and forced 88,000 people from their homes.
Two years later, wildfires burned 1.35-million hectares in B.C.
Crews participating in the exercise are using those events to help structure their response.
“What we’ve learned from wildfires and how communities deal with wildfires in Alberta and B.C., is that we have to build strong relationships with our key partners and be familiar with process,” Adamo said. “So that when it comes time to deploy or to react to an emergency, that we can do so quickly.”
One area of focus for the simulation was the south side of the Bow River, with multiple tourist attractions and homes in the area.
The only way in and out of that area of town is a bridge, which can become a bottleneck on a regular basis.
“By practising and developing comprehensive plans to effectively move people from the south side to the north side, one can ease tension of our residents and visitors, and not feel like they will be trapped with an impeding wildfire,” Adamo said.
First responders went door to door through neighbourhoods on the town’s south side, handing out pamphlets and guides about preparing for an evacuation.
The guides include information about evacuation kits, how to be self-sufficient for 72 hours and emergency management protocol.
“As much as we can do to push our residents to be informed and educated and engaged in emergency management, the better off we will be with any emergency that comes our way,” Adamo said.
Social media and communication also played key roles in the exercise.
Officials used texts and a test of an alert system that will send messages to residents in the event of an emergency.
Residents and businesses in the area are encouraged to sign up for the emergency alert system at banff.ca/alert.