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Five times Canadian troops were called in to battle disaster

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, July 8, 2015, 1:28 PM - Saskatchewan's wildfire disaster has reached such a degree that hundreds of Canadian Forces troops were called in to assist this week.

Aside from assisting in evacuations, more than three hundred soldiers were given a crash firefighting course and sent to the front lines.

As dire as that situation is, it's not remotely the first time our military has been deployed to fight natural disasters. Here are only five such missions in recent memory.

1996: The Saguenay floods

Quebec's Saguenay region was deluged in mid July 1996 with as much rain as it usually receives during the entire month. It was too much for dams and river systems to handle, sparking some of the worst and most destructive flash-flooding in Canadian history.

Ten people lost their lives, more than 1,700 houses and 900 cottages were destroyed. Industry in the area was also affected, and by the time it was over, the elements had caused around $1.5 billion in direct and indirect damage, a staggering blow that marked Canada's first-ever billion-dollar disaster according to Collections Canada.

Some 450 Canadian Forces troops were deployed to help in sandbagging efforts and to assist in the evacuation of some 16,000 people. Quebec's Musee du Fjord says Canadian helicopters flew 750 air rescue missions, and helped distribute food and supplies.

CFB Bagotville became a de facto refugee camp, hosting displaced people and serving some 40,000 meals over the course of four weeks.

The floods left an indelible mark on Quebec's cultural memory, as did the military's efforts to assist those worst-affected, but the size of the deployment paled in comparison to the disasters to come elsewhere in the country.

1997: Red River flooding

Even in a province whose inhabitants are well-accustomed to nervously eyeing flood gauges every spring, Manitoba's deluge of 1997 was one for the ages.

From the start of the winter to the Red River's crest in early May, more than 200 mm of precipitation was added, according to the government of Manitoba. The waters would crest at James Street in Winnipeg at a staggering 7.5 m (and would have been higher than 10 m without flood control measures).

The military deployed more than 8,000 people to assist in the fight against the rising waters, and were in the field for more than a month helping in sandbagging and assisting more than 25,000 refugees.

Without the extra manpower, and improvements in flood management methods over the decades, it could have been worse. As it was, 1,000 homes were damaged, but the last massive flooding on that scale in 1950 forced 100,000 people out of their homes, destroyed 10,000 buildings and damaged a further 5,000. Canadian soldiers would return in 2011 when the Prairies' rivers threatened once more. 

1998: The Eastern Canada ice storm

People in Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes still talk about the great ice storm of 1998, against which all other ice events are measured.

More than 80 hours of precipitation blanketed cities across the region in early January, leaving ice accretions of up to 100 mm in some parts of Quebec and eastern Ontario. As many as 35 people lost their lives, millions of trees were downed and massive power cuts resulted from the ice downing 1,000 transmission towers and 30,000 power poles. The damage was at least $1.5 billion.

In response, the Canadian Forces sent 16,000 personnel into the disaster zone. It's the largest deployment on this list, and in fact was the largest deployment of Canadian troops in peacetime. The last time that many Canadian troops were out of their barracks on a single mission, it was the Korean War.

The cleanup and humanitarian efforts, dubbed "Operation Recuperation" was so massive that Canada's defense minister at the time pleaded for employers to allow the 2,300 reservists on the mission time off from work.

1999: Toronto calls in the army

Canada's largest city had a rough start to 1999, with successive storms dropping 118 cm in January, with 65 cm of snow on the ground at the worst. As the barrage showed no sign of abating, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman took the drastic step of calling for military aid.

Some 400 troops were sent to the city to help clear the snow out, with hundreds more standing by.

Lastman's move made the city something of a laughing stock for the rest of the country. Toronto's winters are mild by the standards of most other provinces (and even parts of northern Ontario), so other Canadians reacted with derision.

But the storms that struck Ontario that January were well beyond the pale of what the province's infrastructure and response teams were prepared for. It cost the city $70 million to clear the snow away, double the city's entire annual snow removal budget. The city, and its massive economy, was all but paralyzed.

Elsewhere across the province, 11 people lost their lives in the storms, and thousands of airline passengers were stranded.

In that context, when Mayor Lastman told the Toronto Star "Would I do it again? You're darn right I would!", it doesn't seem so unreasonable.

2013: Alberta's flood emergency

The city of Calgary, Canada's fourth largest urban area, was struck by a massive flood crisis beginning in June 2013.

Environment Canada says the floodwaters washed a quarter of the province, driving 100,000 people from their homes in Canada's most expensive natural disaster, with $2 billion in insured losses. Five people were killed.

In response, the Canadian Forces' deployed to the region to assist in evacuation, sandbagging and other measures, reaching 2,300 boots on the ground at the height of the crisis.

Around 100 of those were air force personnel, and their help was badly needed.

In High River alone, where residents had to scramble to safety when the river burst its banks, many took refuge on rooftops, and some 600 were plucked to safety by military helicopters.

Given how disaster-prone Canada can be, it's comforting to know there's an extra line of defense ready to be deployed when needed.

SOURCES: Canadian Geographic | Collections Canada | Musee du Fjord | Government of Manitoba | Environment Canada | Canadian Encyclopedia | National Defense Ministry | Toronto Star | Environment Canada | MacLean's | Canadian Forces | CBC

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