Community Services Minister John Streicker speaks at an announcement in Whitehorse on May 23. Close to 150 military personnel from across the country are set to arrive in Whitehorse for Operation Nanook-Tatigiit May 27 to June 6. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Territory readies for Operation Nanook

Military exercise will test the Yukon’s emergency preparedness

Close to 150 military personnel from across the country are set to arrive in Whitehorse for Operation Nanook-Tatigiit 2019.

The annual training exercise will happen from May 27 to June 6 and will incorporate emergency responders from both the territorial and municipal levels as well as the military. Officials from Alaska are also set to be part of this year’s exercise along with Yukon Search and Rescue volunteers and RCMP.

As officials at a May 22 media briefing said, Operation Nanook is an opportunity to test emergency preparedness in the territory as well as the coordination between governments and emergency responders.

Operation Nanook typically happens later in the summer, but Community Services Minister John Streicker said the territory had asked the exercise be held earlier so wildland fire management firefighters could also be involved.

It was no small effort by the military to move up the date, given the coordination involved in bringing in personnel from across the country.

“It was a significant thing on their part,” Streicker said.

The Village of Teslin and Teslin Tlingit Council are also taking the opportunity to test out their emergency plans while the military are in the territory. It will be coordinating with territorial and federal officials during its operation.

Both Streicker and Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis said the possibility of a wildfire is a major concern right now and this will enhance the work already underway to address it as well as testing the communication and coordination efforts when there is an emergency.

“This exercise is a great opportunity for us to practice our emergency plans on a large scale, and to strengthen our existing relationships and partnerships with emergency response agencies,” Curtis said.

The imagined scenario for the exercise that will play out will be a wildfire which begins in the Carcross Valley, Emergency Measures Organization director Diarmuid O’Donovan said.

As for how the blaze is started, that’s not clear. Giving it some thought though, O’Donovan said it would probably be a lightning strike.

Not knowing a cause immediately is part of the exercise, he said.

In the scenario, winds will pick up and the fire will move towards Cowley Creek and closer to the city, triggering an evacuation order.

“Evacuations never go totally smoothly,” O’Donovan said, though he added he’s encouraged by the evacuation underway in High Level, Alberta, which seems to have gone better than many.

Evacuations are a major effort. Emergency responders have to ensure that residents are leaving their homes and that help is provided to those who need it to get out.

Whitehorse city manager Linda Rapp told reporters at the May 21 council meeting that part of the efforts to prepare for Operation Nanook-Tatigiit has been in updating evacuation plans for the city. Updated maps of potential evacuation routes for neighbourhoods in the city will be tested as part of the exercise with the maps to later be published on the city’s website for the general public.

As that is happening, firefighters will also be assessing how to fight the imagined fire and which structures can be saved. Officials stressed that’s where firesmarting personal property can make a major difference. The more trees and materials around a home, the less likely it is to withstand a fire.

Part of the exercise will also see the Yukon Department of Health and Social Services set up a reception centre and basic health clinic inside one of the arenas at the Canada Games Centre.

“It’s basic medical service,” O’Donovan explained.

While most of the exercise happens away from the general public with the exception of the Canada Games Centre set up, residents may notice smoke coming from the Whitehorse Cadet Camp on June 4 due to a strategic burn that is part of the exercise.

“There will be smoke,” Whitehorse Fire Chief Mike Dine said.

Rapp has said that part of the efforts to prepare for Operation Nanook-Tatigiit has been in updating evacuation plans for the city. Updated maps of potential evacuation routes for neighbourhoods in the city will be tested as part of the exercise with the maps to later be published on the city’s website for the general public.

Residents will be able to see the equipment — including a large helicopter — and learn about the exercise at an open house and community barbecue at the Canada Games Centre June 6 from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Both Streicker and Curtis said they are hopeful the exercise will get people talking about actions they can take to deal with potential emergencies, from having a 72-hour emergency kit at the ready to firesmarting their own properties.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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