BC lifts state of emergency, 417 Squadron comes home

Operation LENTUS

After ten weeks in BC, 417 Squadron is coming home.
Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu

Jeff Gaye

With the province of British Columbia lifting its state of emergency last Friday, members of 417 Squadron have finally come home to Cold Lake.

The squadron deployed July 9 on Operation Lentus, the name given to Canadian Armed Forces domestic support for areas affected by natural disasters. They had been helping the province deal with its unprecedented season of wildfires. Their CH-146 Griffon helicopters returned Sunday, with some personnel and equipment returning by road Monday.

Maj Alexia Shore is the squadron’s Commanding Officer and served as the detachment commander for the three CH-146 Griffon helicopters deployed on Operation Lentus. She said the deployment was unusually long for a Canadian disaster relief tasking.

“I didn’t see it going on this long and I don’t think anybody else did either,” she said. “I did one last year from Fort McMurray for wildfires and it lasted only several weeks. A typical of the duration we see for Op Lentus is generally that two or three week time frame.”

The Griffons flew out of Kamloops, along with two RCAF CH-147 Chinook helicopters.

For the first few weeks flying conditions were made difficult by smoke. “It was very challenging flying conditions,” Maj Shore said. “The visibility due to the smoke was sometimes really low at less than half a mile. Sometimes when we were sitting on the airfield we couldn’t even see the control tower.”

Sometimes they would try to fly under the smoke, and at other times when the ceilings were too low they would fly at 10,000 feet to get above it, “and then basically popping to your site and landing at whichever airport, or going and doing whatever task you have to do,” she said. “But
it has made for some definitely interesting flights here.”

Their tasks included medical evacuations and transporting RCMP members to inform local residents it’s time to leave the area. She says sometimes ranchers will ignore an evacuation order so they can care for their livestock as long as possible. Sometimes though, with fire closing in, the RCMP has to go check on these people and urge them to leave.

“We’d get a call sometimes from the RCMP where the fire is less than a kilometre away from these people’s houses, and they want to make sure that we’re on standby in case they send a cop car out there and get trapped by the fire.”

Maj Shore said some First Nations communities are evacuated almost annually, and have people and mechanisms in place to stay behind and protect the community from approaching wildfires. Sometimes, though, the squadron was tasked to give local leaders an aerial tour so they can see the big picture and make informed decisions on whether their firefighters should stay.

“We’ve had some pre-emptive success in helping people make decisions on when it’s time for them to get out,” she said.

The Air Task Force on Operation Lentus also included CC-130 Hercules aircraft flying out of 19 Wing Comox. Maj Shore said there was a major effort at one point to move five Military Police cars to Williams Lake. Four were flown in the Hercs and one in a Chinook. The Griffons helped out by moving air movements personnel to take care of the loading and unloading.

“It was really this combined group effort of all the different aircraft that we have, as well as other people, to make that a success,” she said. “Even though the distance we were moving the cars wasn’t extreme, I think it proved the concept and showed what type of work we could be employed in for other operations, like responding to an earthquake.”

Maj Shore became CO of 417 Squadron during the deployment. She says the experience of working together on a long operation has given her an instant appreciation of the capabilities of the unit and its personnel. At the same time she realizes the deployment took 417 Squadron away from its primary role supporting fighter operations at 4 Wing.

“I don’t take that lightly, that we took away the helicopter standby capability for all of the fighter pilots out there,” she said. “But we’re typically on standby in case something happens, and I saw the fires in BC as something happening right now where we can make a difference in somebody’s life. And I really do think we have made a difference.”