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City staff reflect on supporting others during a raging wildfire season

As the summer days wind down and autumn officially begins this weekend, Canada continues to experience its worst wildfire season ever recorded. Thankfully, our region has not had to contend with any major issues in 2023 – but several City of Lethbridge staff members have been training and preparing should a worst-case scenario reach our community.

As part of the Alberta All Hazards Incident Management Team South Zone, a Provincially grant-funded program established in 2018, four people contributed to response efforts during the wildfires near Drayton Valley in May. Other Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services (LFES) members have also been part of firefighting units across the province this season.

During the Drayton Valley fire, Spencer Croil, Bryan Litchfield, Kevin McKeown and Luke Palmer well all part of the Incident Command System (ICS), the command model and structure used for incident management in Alberta. Each of them recently recalled their general experiences of the event and how they can use the knowledge moving forward to benefit the residents of Lethbridge during any future emergencies.

“It happened rather quickly and that’s how these events go,” says Palmer, the City’s Emergency Planning & Risk Supervisor, who was deployed to Drayton Valley from May 8-14. Palmer said that during his five-hour drive there, he could gradually start to see and smell smoke as he got closer.

“You start realizing ‘I’m the only person on this highway’. It was pretty surreal to show up in an evacuated community,” he says.

Palmer began his time on scene as a deputy Incident Commander before moving up to Incident Commander (IC). The IC runs point and takes responsibility for the incident, is tasked with making sure everyone is safe, as well as high levels of networking and expertise.

“I quickly learned how dynamic this was. We had to keep security at our Incident Command post; we had anything from politicians to the public showing up. It’s awesome having a great team around you to help support, including the local communications team. It was an incredible learning opportunity,” Palmer says. “I can say that doing a national media scrum and being an Incident Commander during a Provincial election is an experience like no other. It’s a difficult situation to maneuver through. We’re working with people who had been evacuated, but the learnings you get from them, the team that were around, and the fact that the military came in – it’s just things that you don’t expect to happen in emergency management until things go wrong. The networking was probably the most impactful. The amount of people I met up there, the expertise with some of the fire people with the Province – was amazing to learn how we can manage our top hazard here in the city.”

McKeown, Deputy Chief for LFES, began with the City on April 17. As soon as he started hearing of issues in Drayton, he knew he would likely be deployed.

“My first thought was that it’s quite early for this to be happening,” says McKeown, who had previously been deployed to 2017 Waterton Kenow Fire and was on the team that saved the Prince of Wales Hotel. “I was thinking about how the entire fire season was going to go.”

He wasn’t sure ahead of time what role he would have at Drayton, so he quickly changed his mindset when he was assigned as Liaison Officer instead of in Operations or Logistics.

“It was a good experience for me to see how a different role works that I hadn’t done before,” McKeown says. “Part of my job was talking to some of the big key players, making sure that their assets were safe and if they needed to get access to well sites that it was coordinated between myself and operations. As we progressed through the incident, we were able to formalize that process. We didn’t want just anyone out there, so we built an accountability system.”

Accountability was also a theme for Litchfield, a Project Manager at the City. As the designated South Zone finance section chief, he became the Finance Administrator for a time during the height of the Drayton Valley fire.

“If you don’t keep good track of it from the start, you’re trying to play catchup,” says Litchfield, who had built a spreadsheet that ICS Canada now uses. “You don’t know what to expect when you get up there. The people I worked with from Drayton Valley and Brazeau County were so eager to learn how this stuff works.”

Upon arrival, he got to work on timekeeping for 541 people involved, plus order tracking and backfilling paperwork. He arrived and started at 7 a.m. Tuesday and caught up by 11 p.m. Friday – all while training and mentoring other staff.

“My job isn’t glamourous. But if it wasn’t for the finance admin section, you wouldn’t realize how important it is to get everything looked after. Nothing happens at an incident without the operations section,” says Litchfield. “But they can’t do anything unless logistics orders it for them. Once logistics orders it for them, it comes to finance and finance tells them ‘yeah, you can order it or you can’t order it’. The whole idea behind this is so we can keep track of what’s happening. We just keep everything on track.”

During his time in Drayton Valley, Litchfield was able to see first-hand visuals of the fire behaviour. From a helicopter, he saw hot spots develop instantly.

“I’m not in emergencies, I’m not a firefighter, I’m not a paramedic – I’m a project manager,” he says. “It was interesting to see when we went up there, you could actually see where the fire started and how the fire behaved as it burned through.”

As part of the South Zone team, Croil, Land Development Manager, was also deployed to Drayton Valley on minimal notice. Upon arrival, he learned of his role as Situation Unit Lead in the Planning Section.

“Being a small piece of the puzzle and a small resource for the rest of the team, my focus was on getting the most up-to-date information from wildfire experts from the Province, people on the ground, the firefighters themselves and our technical staff,” says Croil, who also went up in a helicopter several times to see the 35,000-hectare fire.

Croil started ICS-type training 20 years ago and joined the South Zone team a few years ago. He describes it as a change from his normal work involving long-term planning and land development.

“The day-to-day and immediacy of incidents fascinated me, so I think it was a natural inclination to want to know more about that and want to help,” says Croil. “You wanted to do as much as you could to help because they were so impacted and were still there trying to make the situation better. Being around the folks who were there living and working in the community was a real motivator to try to do the absolute best you can.”

The Drayton Valley experience and incident ultimately will serve as an important learning and training experience for planning and preparation for City of Lethbridge staff.

“It’s a huge benefit for the City of Lethbridge, and any municipality, that has members that are on this team,” says McKeown. “Those members and staff can come back, share knowledge, training, assist with ICS training and mentor and support other staff.”

“It certainly gave me perspective on how good the training has been,” says Croil. “It’s been spot-on in terms of turning that training to actual incidents. There’s never something that’s going to go perfectly during an incident. But you can make sense of the chaos when you have all that background knowledge and training. I think it is fantastic that the City is willing to support this type of regional and deployment initiative and kudos to the Province, too, for helping enable us to get such good training.”

“It is an indicator on what we need to be potentially prepared for here,” says Palmer. “A lot of the planning work that we’ve done up there, we’re able to take back here as templates. But I think the biggest thing is experience. We’ve now seen what it takes to move policing resources to help people get out, manage checkpoints and get first responders in.”

The consistent message between each City staff member who assisted throughout this raging wildfire season was one of support and partnership.

“There is optimism in any situation if you look hard enough,” says Palmer. “Even through all the tragedy and loss, you know the community you’re working to support has the very best people pulling together to help them in their time of need. It gives you a sense of pride in being a public servant and part of a community that pitches in to help our neighbours.”

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