Three weeks ago, an entire city was forced to evacuate due to several wildfires burning out of control near the capital of the Northwest Territories. Over 20,000 people left their homes in Yellowknife. The city shrouded in smoke and eerie silence, would be where several members of Airdrie's Fire Department were deployed.
The members were part of the Incident Management Team with Canada Task Force 2 (CAN-TF2). Among those who had travelled North, were Airdrie firefighter Brad Larway, who is also a rescue specialist, City of Airdrie Deputy Director of Emergency Management, Lorri Laface, as well as the City's Fire Chief, Mike Pirie.
The role of the incident management team was to work with both The City of Yellowknife as well as the territorial government to plan, organize, and prepare how to maneuver through a natural disaster; in this case a wildfire. Chief Pirie described it as a process of mentoring and teaching.
"You teach them how to run a disaster and then your goal is to make sure that they can take over when you eventually leave the community," Chief Pirie said. "Specifically, we took care of logistics."
Logistics included all the things one would need in order for an incident; things such as transportation, housing, as well as a shelter-in-place plan in the event the city were to catch fire.
While Chief Pirie and others in his team were responsible for logistics, it was logistics that was also the very challenge.
"You have a city that's evacuated. So, just the basic day-to-day operations when you don't have all the staff available," he said. "The second component that I found particularly challenging in the Northwest Territories, is the multiple levels of government and how complex it is."
Chief Pirie explained that a territory vs. province is more than just a difference in names. There are several layers of complexity when it comes to governance.
"The city itself has First Nations; so lots of different governance structures and different needs for communities. For example, we [in Airdrie] don't have a First Nations government, inside the city, so having to meet people's cultural and social needs was unique."
However, there was much rewarding work to be had that came with the challenges. For Chief Pirie, successful mentorship is the reward.
"I'm only there for seven days and I'm assigned to mentor amazing people. Within about that halfway mark through the deployment, they're taking over the lead, they're making more of the decisions, and I'm switching to more of a safety net and sounding board," Chief Pirie said. "When you leave on day seven, you can see the relief in their faces, because you always knew they have the ability to do it."
Mentorship also means effective leadership, something Chief Pirie is exceptionally passionate about. He said that calmness and resoluteness are but one characteristic of being an effective leader in crisis situations.
"That's the easy operational side; the mentoring part is being able to work with people of all different backgrounds. I can't just work with Fire Chiefs. I need to be able to work with people who are accountants, lawyers, planners, human resources, and really capitalize on their strengths, and then teach them - not just tell them what to do, but to teach them."
Although many cities across the country and many municipalities have emergency plans in place for natural disasters, Chief Pirie stated there is a fine line between the plan and the reality of executing a plan when a city or town is faced with a natural disaster.
"When you come in, you're able to take these plans and bring all your experience with you from other disasters. You're able to sit down with them [The City], and help them take those plans and modify them," he said. "Most municipalities will have a plan for what to do in a certain disaster. Most municipalities do not have plans for a wildfire burning their city down."
Considering this year's wildfire season across the country has been one of the worst on record, Chief Pirie said that prevention should be the goal. He harkened back to previous massive wildfires in Alberta including the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire and the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire
"These communities that are in these interface areas - which is where the forest areas come into those urban environments - they should be Firesmarting them [and] creating plans."
Chief Pirie noted that whatever the disaster may be; earthquake, tornado, flood or wildfire, he underlined that municipalities should elevate Emergency Management to a priority.
"I think we've seen that really clearly in Alberta and now [the] Northwest Territories."
According to The City of Yellowknife, as of noon on Wednesday, September 6, the Evacuation Order for Yellowknife, Dettah and N’Dilo was anticipated to be changed to an Evacuation Alert.
"This is because the wildfire risk has been reduced thanks to firefighting efforts and the establishment of firebreaks around our community."
The City also added that as of Wednesday, residents would be allowed to return back to their homes - something Chief Pirie said is another rewarding part of the work he and his team were tasked to do.
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