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Jasper first responders test wildfire plan

by Evan Matthews |

For those concerned about the very real wildfire threat in Jasper National Park, emergency personnel are working to get ahead of the game.

Last week, the Jasper Volunteer Fire Department ran a tabletop exercise to test out its emergency response plan.

The department does annual tests, which typically focus on one of the more major risks to Jasper’s community, according to fire chief Greg Van Tighem, who has been in the role for 18 years now. With the pine beetle and extreme potential for wildfire, he says this year’s exercise centered on wildfire.

Typically tabletop exercises in Jasper are done through a sequence of Powerpoint slides; slides come in simulating updates, and participants use a topographical map to hold a briefing before heading out into the field.

“In this case, Parks Canada says ‘okay there is a fire at the west gate.’ Then we look at the map and go, ‘Here is the gate, and here is the fire,’” saying 20 minutes later another slide came in adding information such as the fire being two hectares in size and weather conditions indicating heavy winds from the west.

The municipality’s Christine Nadon hard at work at an emergency simulation in Jasper on Nov. 1. | Photo provided

Then the respective players “sprawl out” from the tabletop, Van Tighem says.

Parks Canada has a highly skilled network of firefighters, according to Van Tighem, saying they are out fighting fires all summer long. They go from community to community within national parks as needed, he says. The Parks firefighters fight wildfires inside the park but outside the municipal boundary.

The local department works at preventative measures within the municipal boundary in order to protect its structures by setting up fire guards, minimizing fuels and accelerators by removing debris and clearing (combustible) brush, and finally setting up sprinklers and pumps to increase moisture in areas of risk. In the case of a wildfire threatening the town, Van Tighem says the department would do the same thing on a larger scale.

It’s just not just emergency personnel who will play potential roles in situations like Wildfire, which is why some other specific organizations are invited to the exercise, Van Tighem says.

“When we do the exercise, we invite not just the players, but also the people who have roles within the actual ECC, which is the directors, the CAO, myself. We also invite other agencies that maybe don’t play a role, but they come and learn what we do and it raises the awareness.”

Parks Canada, the hospital, ATCO and the seniors’ facilities are just a few of the organizations the Fire Department invites, he says, and even if the organization doesn’t play a role, relationship building is still taking place.

“Nothing changes in an emergency. If you don’t have a positive day-to-day relationship with a certain agency, well, when you get into an emergency and things are highly stressful, it won’t change,” says Van Tighem. “It could be detrimental to the response.”

Local method

The fire department breaks up the Jasper townsite into zones, according to Van Tighem, with “response recipes” for each zone, as well as if multiple zones are affected, or even the whole town.

Being a small department means not having an excess of resources, which in turn means establishing relationships with neighbouring departments, according to Van Tighem. In instances exceeding the local department’s capabilities, he says they then look outward.

“Then we go to Hinton, Edson and Yellowhead County. Once we get beyond that, which would raise a huge flag, we would go to the provincial group called the Alberta Emergency Management Agency,” says Van Tighem. “They would provide resources.”

This was the case during the Fort McMurray fire.

Questions come up, Van Tighem says, and the department takes the time to run these simulations kind of like a hockey practice.

“There is a lot at stake. Sometimes questions come up… We solve the problem or find the answer, and then everyone knows: This is the process or procedure,” says Van Tighem.

He said there were new faces at the table last week who benefitted from the exercise.

“It’s a great learning opportunity, but it’s not like you have to be in complete disaster mode.”

Van Tighem recommends always having a full tank of gas, and an emergency bag packed and ready to go.

“People tend to panic,” he said. “Community awareness and involvement is so important. Jasper isn’t just a town of 5,000, there can be up to 25,000 tourists here (on a given day).”

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