ARCHIVED - Fighting the forces of nature – Canadian Army soldiers help fight wildfires in Saskatchewan during Operation LENTUS 2015-02

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Article / August 19, 2015 / Project number: 15-0141

La Ronge, Saskatchewan — Fighting an unconventional enemy is one of the things that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) do best, so when the call came July 5, 2015 to join forces with experienced firefighting crews who were battling the wildfires scorching the landscape of northern Saskatchewan, Lieutenant Devin Kruk and Sergeant Bryon Crowhurst were ready to deploy. Both are members of the 1st Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1 PPCLI), a unit belonging to the1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta and they actively participated in Operation LENTUS 2015-2.

A major mobilization of troops during any crisis in Canada falls under Operation LENTUS, a CAF contingency plan that is available to augment provincial, territorial and/or municipal authorities’ emergency response abilities following natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding or, as in this case, forest fires. Through Op LENTUS, the CAF stands ready to provide not only troops on the ground, but engineering, health services, aircraft and other specialties as needed.

Approximately 850 members of the Immediate Response Unit and Primary Reserve units from 3rd Canadian Division were called upon to conduct both firefighting and support activities. Troops were trained by Saskatchewan Wildfire Management and from July 8 to 20, they conducted 12 days of fire line operations in the vicinities of Montreal Lake and La Ronge.

Soldiers conducted many activities in support of the front-line fire crews, including patrolling the fire lines, putting out hotspots in and around vulnerable communities and providing logistical support, such as moving fire hoses and sprinkler systems that were in place to protect houses and critical infrastructure. These significant contributions allowed the civilian authorities to focus their attention on the critical task of containing the active fires.

Sgt Crowhurst, who led a section of 7 Platoon in Charlie Company, remarked that it was rewarding to see the potential for great damage averted, to see houses remain intact and witness people returning to their communities. “It gave us recognition that we were able to achieve something,” he said.

Lieutenant-General Marquis Hainse, Commander of the Canadian Army, expressed his appreciation for what the soldiers accomplished. “The members of the Canadian Army displayed remarkable grit and military bearing in the face of challenging and demanding circumstances. Their performance and dedication throughout this operation have exceeded all expectations and Canadians across the country applaud their outstanding achievements. Well done.

Conditions were certainly challenging but nothing a well-trained soldier couldn’t handle. Distances of several kilometres needed to be traversed on foot. Dehydration and hyperthermia were constant challenges and there was a lot of thick brush and treacherous, burned-out wood debris that was susceptible to collapse. The terrain was also mountainous at times, making some areas only accessible by helicopter and boat. Two military CH-146 Griffons from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron and various civilian contracted air- and watercraft supported transportation needs, shuttling troops and equipment to and from work sites.

Lt Kruk, who served as Charlie Company’s 6 Platoon Commander and then as Liaison Officer at operation headquarters in La Ronge, explained that “we were working in 30 degree weather, doing very physical labour. We did have a little bit of rain, some wind, a little bit of lightning at points. There were a lot of insects: mosquitos, black flies, horseflies, deerflies, all that,” he said.

Working outdoors did have its compensations, however. “We worked out of Forward Operating Base Patricia, which was by a lake, so it was nice. The team had some biodegradable soap, so they could clean up in the lake and we had fresh meals for breakfast and dinner,” said Lt Kruk.

Both Lt Kruk and Sgt Crowhurst spoke fondly of the positive working relationship with municipal authorities and the local communities that the soldiers established in a short period of time. “We got to know them pretty well. It was nice to see. They were very happy that we were out there helping them,” said Lt Kruk.

When asked about the greatest strengths of the soldiers in his section, Sgt Crowhurst pointed to their work ethic. “No one complained. We got told to do some things and we went out, did them and asked what was next. They put in long hours and hard days,” he said.

When asked what stood out most for him as a learning experience, Lt Kruk underlined that hard work and coordinated effort can make a huge difference to the civilian crews on the ground. “When we first deployed there, there were upwards of 20 communities under direct threat from forest fires. By the time we were ready to go home, that had been reduced down to two. We had a little help from the weather, but it was a lot of hard work.

Lt Kruk also commended the Army’s ability to adapt and overcome any situation to protect the Canadian people. “If you had told me a year ago that we could deploy the entire battalion in 24 hours, and affect firefighting on the ground, I probably would have been like… uh, I don’t know about that. But we were ready! Plans and preparations were in place before we even got the call, and everyone performed very, very well,” he concluded.

By Natalie Flynn, Army Public Affairs

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