For two months this summer, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) were on the ground in British Columbia and Manitoba to help their fellow Canadians in combating the devastating wildfires that had enveloped much of the two provinces.
The CAF deployed troops and aircraft to British Columbia, under Operation LENTUS, on July 9 after an official request for assistance from the provincial government of BC.
WO Terry Vandenberghe, from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, was amongst the first troops deployed to the region. Aboard a CC-130 Hercules, Vandenberghe and eight other CAF members flew out to Williams Lake, BC. He remained in the area for three weeks.
The main task of Vandenberghe, and his fellow CAF members, was to assist local RCMP in evacuations, controlling evacuation zones and spreading the word amongst the community on how to seek assistance.
“By getting out on the control points, that the RCMP set up, it freed the RCMP to do community policing and continue on with their job,” said the 1 CER member.
Vandenberghe then later returned in September for two weeks until the government confirmed that the province was no longer in a state-of-emergency.
Overall, in BC, CAF troops supported provincial firefighters, evacuated locals, transported equipment and first responders and delivered essentials. At the height of the mission, approximately 800 troops were deployed to the province and more than 2,000 military members from across the country were providing support to the province over the course of the operation.
This support, says Vandenberghe, translated as an immeasurable sense of appreciation from the locals who brought the members cookies to show their gratitude.
“It was great as a soldier to be back in the position to help Canadians on the ground.
“It’s an ability to help some of the communities that need our assistance, to help fellow Canadians in their time of need, just to be on home soil helping out, is worth the time,” said Vandenbergh.
A number of CAF members were also deployed to Northern Manitoba from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 to evacuate members of the First Nations who reside around Island Lake, MB. In total, 12 flights were conducted to evacuate 1,119 people.
During this time, Sgt. Nicole Fagan, from 2IC Air Movements Section, and Capt. Jeff Edwards Squadron Standards Officer from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron, were on the ground at Island Lake.
Island Lake, where much of the community is spread across different islands, was effected by kilometres and kilometres of smoke without the luxury of emergency services at their fingertips.
“You could just see how sad people were and not wanting to leave, and rightfully so, because they’re getting on a plane and leaving and not knowing what they’re going to come back to,” recalled Fagan.
Fagan was in-charge of a ground crew of five members for a number of days that helped load and transport baggage.
She echoed Vandenberghe’s sentiment of feeling grateful to help fellow Canadians on home soil.
“It’s definitely an honour, and I speak for myself and all the other crew members that were with me that day, this is what we’re here to do. Helping people at home. We get to go on deployments and we get to help so many other people around the world but when we get to stand up and help people at home, it definitely means a lot,” stated Fagan.
To help evacuate the thousands of Island Lake residents effected by the wildfires, Capt. Edwards was on-hand to fly the evacuees from Island Lake to Manitoba. In total, Edwards estimates he helped to evacuate anywhere from 400-500 people.
“It means the world to me, obviously, something like this in support of helping Canadians. The whole crew were so pleased to be able to do something to help and the technicians we have here were working so hard to keep the aircraft running throughout the period that we were involved. It was a huge team effort and I think everyone was just over the moon to be involved,” said Edwards.