Preparing for doomsday in Dawson

If Dawson City were burning, following a major earthquake, the Yukon government's first reaction would not be to deploy firefighters and emergency responders. It would prepare to do this.

If Dawson City were burning, following a major earthquake, the Yukon government’s first reaction would not be to deploy firefighters and emergency responders.

It would prepare to do this. Then it would wait for the City of Dawson to declare a state of emergency.

That, anyhow, is how it played out on Wednesday morning, when government staff went through the motions of how to react to such a disaster.

Think of it as a day-long game of Dungeons and Dragons for emergency staff, so that they’re prepared for the real thing.

In this scenario, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 has hit just east of Dawson City at 8:20 a.m. The Yukon Energy plant is on fire.

Some 100,000 litres of diesel fuel has spilled and ignited, creating a plume of smoke and fire that can be seen anywhere in Dawson.

Many power poles have toppled over. Dawson’s Goldrush-era buildings, already akilter before the quake, are now piles of rubble. The radio tower above town is keeling over.

News on the ground trickles in slowly. Satellite connections are patchy. The government’s emergency radio channel is overrun with chatter.

Back in Whitehorse, in the Emergency Measures Building by the airport, approximately 25 government workers from a variety of agencies sort out their first steps.

Two projection screens show Google Earth’s rendition of Dawson City from the air. A third screen projects the group’s working notes. Maps of the Klondike are spread over tables, weighed down with juiceboxes and a ruler.

The crowd has representatives from a handful of Yukon government departments, as well as representatives from the Yukon Hospital Corporation, the RCMP, the Department of National Defence and Public Safety Canada.

The Armed Force’s man seems to spend all day trying, without luck, to connect his laptop to the internet.

The exercise is the brainchild of Michael Swainson, an emergency planner with EMO. He’s up in Dawson City during the exercise, helping co-ordinate about 20 staff there and occasionally dribbling updates to Whitehorse by radio.

Michael Templeton, director of Yukon’s Emergency Measures Organization, co-ordinates the crowd in Whitehorse. They’re divvied up into the same command structure used during wildfire emergencies in the US.

There’s a point person for five categories: operations, planning, logistics, finance and administration. Each wears a shiny reflective vest, and offers periodic updates to Templeton.

But in practice, it’s Darren Butt who lords over everyone. He’s EMO’s head of operations for the exercise, and he’s enormous – standing six-foot-nine – with an oversized personality to match.

Butt is a freewheeling, gregarious Newfoundlander. Now he’s calling many of the shots, but he’s still learning to refrain from glib remarks—he catches himself midway in a casual reference to ambulances as “meat wagons.”

He’s also still learning his limits. At one point, he asks federal officials to prepare search-and-rescue planes. He’s quickly put in his place: he doesn’t have the authority to order them around.

Instead, he had better tell them what resources he needs, and they’ll respond as they see fit.

An update comes over the radio. In Dawson, the injured are being tended to from the safety of the nearby ski hill. The ambulance bay has become the morgue. At least seven are dead.

Plans are made to send up emergency generators and a fuel truck.

By midmorning, two firetrucks, a heavy rescue van and three ambulances are ready to roll, and three planes have been secured from Air North and Alcan to fly emergency responders in.

But everything is idling. They’re still waiting for permission from Dawson officials to deploy.

It’s a tricky situation. Mayor and council could be dead, for all they know, and communications are still on the fritz.

The waiting doesn’t sit well with two emergency planners, who privately grumble that, were this not a drill, they wouldn’t be sitting on their thumbs. If they knew Dawson was a wreckage of smoldering diesel and collapsed buildings, they’d send crews up the highway immediately, jurisdictional authority be damned.

But rules are rules, insists Butt. They need to respect the town’s authority, at least “until the safety and security of people in Dawson are in peril,” he said.

You’d think they had already reached that point, but apparently not.

And such a call would not be up to Butt or anyone else in the room. They can only make a recommendation to the minister of Community Services, who would make the final call. But it never comes to that.

Eventually, shortly after 10 a.m., the declaration comes, and 73 first responders are deployed.

Just where evacuees will go is another problem – Whitehorse General Hospital is already full. So a mobile hospital is being assembled at the Whitehorse airport.

It’s essentially the setup seen in M*A*S*H – a green army tent with an operating room and enough space to hold 200 injured in cots. The whole package waits in storage in an airport hangar.

Folded up, the entire unit is small enough to load on to a semi truck. But it’s decided to set up the hospital in Whitehorse, away from danger and closer to medical backup staff arriving from Outside.

All the highway bridges have held, so far, but the government is prepared if one gives. It has a bailey bridge that’s waiting to be quickly slung across the Klondike River.

More modest supplies are lacking. Dennis Berry, the territory’s fire marshal, worries his crews will quickly burn through their work gloves. He wonders if he could commandeer hockey equipment to use in a jam.

And he knows his firemen will need someplace to sleep. With power and heat out across town, he wonders whether the territory could rent a bevy of RVs to provide shelter for the rescuers.

Officials have no idea how much disaster response will cost as it happens. But expenses are being carefully tracked, so that the territory can better plead for federal disaster funds later.

By 2 p.m. the situation has gotten considerably worse. Airplanes are no longer able to land in Dawson, due to winds that have blown thick smoke across the gravel runway.

The highway was closed for a short period, too, because of damage from an aftershock. During that time the injured had to be flown out by helicopter to Mayo, then loaded on a fixed-wing aircraft to Whitehorse.

Worse still, the Public Works building collapsed while it was being used as a shelter. Fifteen first responders were inside. There’s no indication of how many survived.

The Yukon is still waiting for Ottawa to deploy search-and-rescue aircraft, additional medical staff and technicians to inspect the buildings still standing in Dawson. Alaska’s been called for help, too.

Approximately 30 are dead and 200 injured.

Dennis Berry, the territory’s fire marshal, has a radical proposal: “There’s 1,500 people in Dawson. Let’s evacuate every single one,” he said.

Can they do this? Butt again worries about the jurisdictional implications. “We can’t make that call,” he said. “Only Dawson can make that call.”

Berry disagrees. “We’ve lost 15 first responders,” he said. He mentions the possibility of the territory facing an expensive lawsuit as a result.

Butt breaks character for a moment. “The whole point of this exercise,” he said, “is to ask these tough questions.”

Contact John Thompson at

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