Days of freezing rain have blanketed the southern half of the Yukon in as much as 10 centimetres of ice, the temperature is frigid as residents flock to warming centres in Whitehorse or huddle around wood stoves. Power lines and some roofs have bowed and broken under the frozen weight. It will be weeks or longer before the power grid and other systems are running normally.
Fortunately, all the challenges of a raging winter storm are hypothetical this week as emergency services, utility companies, governments and the Canadian Forces sent representatives to participate in Operation Nanook-Tatigiit in Whitehorse. It is the latest iteration of an annual exercise held in the North to test cooperation between governments and the Canadian Forces in the face of threats identified by the territorial governments.
Oct. 26 was the third day of the exercise that simulated a days-long storm leading to ice buildup on roads and power-generating facilities. Whether gathered in the Yukon government emergency coordination centre, located just north of the Whitehorse airport, or participating remotely, representatives from the agencies involved walked through their response to the emergency.
“We’re seeing road closures, widespread power outages, widespread telecoms outages. Obviously, we’ve had to establish some warming centres. We’re working to, you know, determine how we can keep critical infrastructure running, how we can de-ice the bridges to make sure that supplies can get in,” said territorial government representative Julia Duchesne prior to the Oct. 26 morning briefing.
The Canadian Forces members overseeing the exercise complicated things by making additions to the scenario as it unfolded. Prior to the Oct. 26 session, organizers had been asked to contend with a fire at a downtown hotel, a riot at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and unexplained nausea among people staying at the Canada Games Centre.
The briefing on Oct. 26, the only part of the exercise media were invited to observe, was led by Shane Skarnulis, the director of the Yukon government’s emergency coordination centre.
Those at the briefing heard that the hotel fire created a mass-casualty event with 19 patients overwhelming medical services. Late in the last day of the exercise, warm shelter had to be found for dozens of people as the snow and ice collapsed the roof of another downtown hotel that people were sheltering in.
There was positive news discussed, as the highway was set to reopen for fuel and other essential supplies. However, a grim picture was painted by telecom and power company representatives with 16,000 households without power. The weather was still grounding the helicopters needed to survey destroyed power lines and it was clear that the lights would be out for weeks to come.
During the exercise, the emergency coordination centre building was being run off its generator and using its satellite communications, simulating real emergency conditions.
Captain (Navy) Doug Layton, the deputy commander of the Canadian Forces Joint Task Force North based in Yellowknife, said the troops there are well-trained and prepared for responding to an emergency in the Yukon. He said they would await an official request for assistance from the territory or any other Canadian jurisdiction in need.
“Part of the goals of this exercise is to get that process well sorted out in advance, while there’s no actual risk to Canadians’ lives or their homes, so that if and when that actually happens, scenarios such as this, all agencies are ready to respond as quickly as possible,” Layton said.
The City of Whitehorse, represented at the exercise by assistant director of the city’s emergency operations centre Kevin Lyslo, has picked up some information about the need for preparedness ahead of time. He said that can take the form of coordination with the Yukon government in setting up warming shelters or ensuring key facilities can be run off either permanent or portable generators.
Skarnulis added that a lot of the ground work for cooperation between governments, emergency responders and the companies the Yukon’s infrastructure relies on was tested during the fires this summer and other recent emergencies.
“Having those relationships in place ahead of time, knowing exactly who to talk to. That makes things go much smoother in the real emergencies when you can’t call them on the cell phone or send them an email, but we already have their sat phone numbers and we know who to talk to,” he said.
Skarnulis called the type of situation being simulated in the Operation Nanook exercise “a very real possibility,” citing the widespread power outages the Yukon experienced last winter and the more severe weather experienced due to climate change.
“Resiliency starts with the individual preparedness for 72 hours in an event like this, the more people that can look after themselves and hunker down and stay at home and support other people, the better, the less stress on the system,” Skarnulis said.
Items considered essential for a 72-hour emergency kit include non-perishable food and drinking water, flashlights and a first aid kit. Candles and matches or a lighter, camp stoves, sleeping bags or warm blankets and basic tools are among the recommended additions to the kit.
Along with individuals making preparations for themselves and their families, Skarnulis encouraged people to look out for their neighbours in the event of an emergency. He said this is especially important in rural areas, but he noted that a lot of people living outside of Whitehorse already have the sort of resiliency and preparation required to ride out the first days of an emergency.
He said ultimately an emergency response from the federal government would be necessary to rebuild destroyed infrastructure.
“We’ve seen that with every major emergency, the response is short relative to the entire event. It’s the recovery that takes the time and it will take honestly years for people to recover from the damage from an event like this.”
Oct. 26 was the final day of the exercise with the organizations involved planning to spend Oct. 27 debriefing to help clarify the lessons learned by the exercise.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com