As the city of Fort McMurray stood nearly empty and burning on Wednesday morning, Canada’s defence minister confirmed that the military has been called in and is preparing to help in whatever way it can.
Harjit Sajjan told reporters on a conference call from Germany that an official request for help has been made by the province of Alberta, which was a necessary step before a major military operation could be launched.
Sajjan is in Germany for a security conference, and said he is being updated on the situation in Fort McMurray as it unfolds.
“Before I left, I was briefed by my staff and I spoke with (Public Safety) Minister Ralph Goodale about this,” Sajjan said. “The Canadian Forces are doing the assessment … I assured him that all assets will be available. I’ll be briefed up as soon as I finish this call.”
The minister did not provide precise details in terms of what type of help could be on the way, but promised that whatever is needed, “it will be provided.”
Experience with previous disasters and training exercises have made a rapid response to the crisis easier, Sajjan added.
“A lot of the aspects of the coordination were done very quickly.”
If support is needed before an official request comes in from the province or territory and is approved by Ottawa, the forces launch what’s called “a rapid response operation,” or RRO.
This only happens when waiting for formal approval would result in loss of life or human suffering.
In the case of an RRO, a local commander can essentially bypass the chain of command, launching an immediate response and issuing orders to local units. It’s unclear if any RROs had been initiated in response to the Alberta fires by Wednesday morning.
Global News confirmed Tuesday evening, however, that military personnel in the region had already received notice that they should be ready to deploy.
Saying a prayer for my hometown Fort McMurray and all its citizens. Everyone has been told to evacuate their homes. Many people still need help. Thanks to everyone who have sacrificed their lives today and whose efforts have helped kids and families escape to safety. #ymmfire Will post more on how to help. #ymmhelps on Twitter for info and donations. 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻
What will the soldiers do?
Major domestic disasters sometimes necessitate intervention from the Canadian Forces, which have the equipment and personnel to respond to situations involving widespread evacuations, heavy damage to property and even loss of life.
Depending on the situation, the closest military bases to whatever disaster is unfolding are the ones that normally provide the troops.
There are some restrictions to what these soldiers can do, according to the Department of National Defence. Relief efforts from the military cannot disrupt ongoing operations or search and rescue operations.
In the spring of 2011, the military was called in at the request of the government of Quebec as severe flooding struck several municipalities in the province’s Monteregie region. In that situation, 500 soldiers helped to fill out sandbags, distribute food or water to displaced residents, protect infrastructure and evacuate people who were trapped in their homes.
Fires have often necessitated even more direct participation from the military. In the summer 2003, the forces launched Operation Peregrine — the third-largest domestic operation ever — to help British Columbia deal with hundreds of raging forest fires.
Hundreds of soldiers were given basic firefighting training and actually deployed to the front of the fire lines to battle the blazes.
Then, just last year, soldiers were once again called into action during the wildfires in Saskatchewan. Again, they received a day of training before heading out to support firefighters already on the ground, patrolling the fire lines, putting out hot spots and providing logistical support wherever possible.
Prime Minister offers support
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on Wednesday morning that he had spoken to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. He called it a “terrible time” for the people of Fort McMurray.
“We will be there for them,” Trudeau said. “We are a country of people who support each other and we will continue to do that, particularly in situations such as this.”
If you would like to help the people of Fort McMurray, text REDCROSS to 30333 to make a $5 donation or visit redcross.ca to make a donation online.