As the eyes of the world gradually shift away from Alberta’s destructive wildfire, the nervous question remains: how prepared are we for such a wide-scale emergency?
That’s the question Sooke Fire Chief Steve Sorensen, along with District of Sooke staff, tried to figure out during a recent emergency preparedness planning meeting.
“This morning we updated our CAO how to declare a state of emergency when you have to do an evacuation order,” Sorensen said, adding that her role is to liaison between Emergency Operations Centre and council.
“It’s got to be a very cut and dry system. No politics.”
That’s what the Emergency Operations Centre is all about – all authorities (paramedics, fire, police) – working together, while each one still individually fills their role without interruption.
To make it feel real, Sorensen presented city officials with a dire scenario simulation: a major forest fire has wiped out half of East Sooke and now heading into Sooke. More than 100 homes lost.
As the emergency coordinator, Sorensen said he’s been doing a one-hour training session every other month with staff to get it in the mindset of being ready for such a thing happening.
“I do a morning and an afternoon one, and this was more to bring it all together into an actual, bigger scenario where all the different parts would come together and make sense,” he said.
It’s not as simple as it sounds, though. Even with a generous amount of crew and machinery available, it all means nothing if coordination is lacking or nonexistent.
Even with a plan, things don’t always go by the book, either.
“You can say, ‘well, we just need a plan, follow the plan.’ Plans are great, but people change, things change and as more growth and development happens, where your plan worked three years ago, it might not now,” Sorensen said, adding that even an evacuation is not that easy.
“You don’t have just fire, you have smoke, ash falling out of the sky, because of the way [the fire] is going … so let’s say this will affect Sooke Road. If we evacuate people into Sooke and the road gets cut off, what do we do with them?”
There’s a flip side to that too.
“If we evacuate everyone in Langford and nothing happens to the road because we put the fire out in time, is there going to be backlash from the public because we evacuated them or will there be backlash because we evacuated them when we didn’t need to,” Sorensen said, adding that at the end of the day, all that matters is human life.
“This is where someone has to make those hard decisions, but it’s better to air a little on the side of caution than wait too long.”
The real question now is, how do they chunk this all into manageable pieces so that the resources that are here, until more help gets here, noted Sorensen.
“There’s a lot that can go wrong, but that’s why the devil’s all in the details.”