Evacuation at Alberta First Nation prepares Dene Tha' for possible disaster

The Dene Tha' know all about emergencies, after being hit by several in recent years. The First Nation and the province conducted an exercise this week to better prepare community members for possible future disasters.

Volunteer band members flee their homes in first of it's kind emergency exercise

RCMP officer and a volunteer band member tell people to leave their homes as part of an emergency exercise in 2016. (Supplied by Alberta Municipal Affairs)

Outside a small home in Chateh, a RCMP vehicle has its lights flashing and a school bus waits with the doors open and the engine running.

They're there to evacuate members of the Dene Tha' First Nation to a safe reception centre set up at the local school.

A police officer knocks on the door and tells people inside to pack their bags and leave because of a gas leak.

Participants already know its part of an emergency exercise, and have volunteered to take part.

Emergency exercise road block in Chateh

They pile onto the bus and make their way through a roadblock, before registering at the centre.

The exercise, in partnership with Alberta's Emergency Management Agency, is the first of its kind on an Alberta First Nation.

Chateh is near High Level, more than 800 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

The Dene Tha' know all about emergencies, after being hit by several in recent years.

"Fire, water, they don't wait for anybody," said Dene Tha' chief Joe Pastion. "So it is a key that every part of our management need to play a role in our efforts to evacuate everybody safely."

He said the First Nation's experiences in recent years are part of the reason the band wanted this training, to better prepare for possible future disasters.

"The challenges with evacuating 1,500 to 1,600 people is the confusion," said Pastion, referring to last year's forest fires that came close to the Dene community of Meander River.

The Dene Tha' know all about emergencies, after being hit by several in recent years. The First Nation and the province conducted an exercise this week to better prepare community members for possible future disasters. 1:58

People had to leave their homes quickly when the community was blanketed by smoke.

Widespread floods forced people out a few years ago as well, with many forced to stay in nearby High Level for a time.

In such a rural setting, it's challenging to get people out fast, especially when some live far apart from each other.

Model for other Alberta First Nations

Alberta is the only province that has a federal funding agreement to provide emergency management training on First Nations.

"This is going to be a model to all First Nations in Alberta, for the importance of planning and having your chief and council behind your emergency planning to allow things like this to happen," said Fran Byers, manager of First Nation field operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Byers said the province now has an emergency plan in place for every First Nations community, but this hands-on, real-time exercise is so far unique, and one provincial officials see as a significant step.

First Nation Field Officer Winston Delorme examines map with RCMP officer

This exercise brings together government officials, the First Nation, police and energy companies set up in an emergency co-ordination centre at the Chateh health centre.

They're working together on the scenario, pinpointing where the mock gas leak is on maps, and where roadblocks should be put up to keep people away from the danger zone.

The scenario is for a gas leak from a pipeline two to three kilometres from the Chateh band office. The pipeline doesn't exist, but in the exercise it carries the risk of an explosion.

Volunteers involved in the drill relay messages using hand-held radios.

In the reception centre, people are asked to register when they enter, as they would in a real emergency, so officials know who is accounted for.

People register at reception centre

Incident called down and people go back home

Inside the centre, tables and chairs are set up in the gym and food and water is available.

That's where Pastion and other leaders update the band members on the situation, first speaking in Dene then in English.

Eventually, after updates from officials, the incident is called down. Roadblocks are dismantled and people are allowed to go home.

With nearly 70 band members inside the reception centre, the chief is impressed with the way his community reacted to the scenario.

"We've come away with a real good learning exercise in a real true setting, so I'm glad we have that under our belt," Pastion said.

Chief Pastion speaks to band members in reception centre gym

The Dene Tha' are one of six communities participating in exercises across the province as part of a government commitment to improve disaster response.

Wildfire season starting early this year

A key recommendation from the review of the 2013 floods encouraged more such drills to better prepare communities for emergencies. 

Because of dry conditions this year, the province has already announced that wildfire season will begin on March 1, a month early. It's a recommendation that stems from another report that followed the devastating fires that swept through Slave Lake five years ago.

Alberta's emergency management agency thinks the Dene Tha' exercise has provided invaluable hands-on experience for the First Nation.

"It definitely could be preparing them for fire season, I mean that's around the corner, and there's not a whole lot of moisture in the ground or on top of the ground," said Winston Delorme, a First Nations field officer for Alberta's emergency management agency.

The agency hopes other First Nations in the province will ask for the training.

It wants all to benefit from the same kind of exercise the Dene Tha' received, so as many communities as possible can prepare for emergencies.

Whether that be a gas leak, forest fire or any other kind of disaster.