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July 24, 2017

Evacuation at Williams Lake

Williams Lake airport / Aéroport de Williams Lake Photo: Neal Magota

When, just over one year ago, the city of Fort McMurray was devastated by wildfires, NAV CANADA employees distinguished themselves with their commitment to keep air traffic services up and running. We now find ourselves in a similar situation as wildfires burn throughout the British Columbia interior, impacting dozens of communities and forcing tens of thousands of individuals from their homes.

During times of crisis NAV CANADA must consider both the safety of our staff working in the affected areas, and service to customers, including support of aerial firefighting activity.

So what happens when wildfires force the evacuation of staff from the area, leaving the flight service station without a crew to run it?

One of NAV CANADA’s key facilities in the BC interior is the Williams Lake flight service station, which provides air traffic services to Williams Lake Regional Airport as well as remote services to Quesnel Regional Airport and remote overnight services to Prince George Airport.

On July 8th, when the forest fires in British Columbia began requiring road closures in the central portion of the province NAV CANADA started contingency planning.  A decision was made for three staff from the Williams Lake flight service station to report to Vancouver, where the company had begun constructing a workstation to enable airport advisory service to be provided remotely.

Then, on July 10th an evacuation alert for Williams Lake was announced. An evacuation alert lets the population know that there is a risk of impending danger and individuals should voluntarily leave the area or prepare themselves to do so.

Four staff members remained  to continue operations from the flight service station until the evacuation order came on July 15.  This enabled the Williams Lake FSS to continue to operate, but with reduced hours of operation.

The temporary workstation at the Vancouver area control centre allowed relocated staff to continue supporting fire suppression efforts from Vancouver during overnight hours.

Now that the community of Williams Lake is under evacuation order, all staff and their families are in Vancouver where they are being provided with appropriate support and continue  the remote provision of service from the temporary location.

What makes this situation even more challenging is the significant increase in air traffic during this time, coupled with reduced visibility due to smoke in the area. While the airspace around Williams Lake is restricted, there is a need for firefighting and other emergency aircraft to access the airport. From July 1 – July 15 traffic at Quesnel and Williams Lake airports was 340% higher than during the same period in 2016.

The situation in Williams Lake and the British Columbia interior remains serious and there is still much work to be done. Despite the evacuation, NAV CANADA employees are continuing to providing air traffic services to support the emergency aircraft that are helping fight these wildfires.

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