Dana Woodworth, team lead, Wood Buffalo Recovery Task Force. Photo: Greg Halinda

Retired combat engineer brings decades of experience to Fort McMurray’s post-fire recovery

Do no harm.

Dana Woodworth’s philosophy of life is all about taking care of people. And he’s been doing exactly that across the globe for decades.

His latest job is helping Fort McMurray rebuild following this year’s devastating wildfires. Team leader for the Wood Buffalo Recovery Task Force, the 53-year-old Woodworth arrived in town mid-May to assist with the re-entry until July. A month after he left, he was invited back to assist with recovery efforts. This August, he was named the task force’s interim leader; council appointed him permanent leader on October 4.

A retired Canadian Armed Forces combat engineer—his “federal time,” as he affectionately calls it—Woodworth and his wife of 32 years live in B.C. He is the vice-president and co-owner of NOR-EX Engineering, a Kamloops, B.C.–based firm specializing in disaster recovery, ice engineering, environmental services and project management. He is the recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross from the Governor General of Canada and has over three decades of experience in strategic analysis, planning and emergency response.

Alberta Construction Magazine contributor Kiran Malik-Khan caught up with the busy Woodworth to learn more about the experience he is bringing to the challenging task of rebuilding Fort McMurray.

ACM: Can you tell us about your time as an army combat engineer?

Woodworth: I was in the Canadian army as a military engineer officer for 29 years. I’ve served, trained and travelled all over the world: Afghanistan, Cambodia, France, Bosnia and the Middle East, to name a few places. While I’ve done many tours in Afghanistan, my last one was in 2008 for a year when I led the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. This was a group of 550 people helping the province with governance, basic infrastructure and construction at a time when the region was in turmoil. There was active Taliban insurgency. We were training and supporting their government, police and military. I arrived happy, but pragmatic. I built trust—one relationship at a time. I believe our presence was helpful, but I also believe we needed more time and resources to have an enduring impact.

Why disaster recovery?

For that, you’d have to ask me why I joined the military. Disaster recovery is an extension of my training and experience as an army officer. When you join the Canadian Forces, you are prepared to put yourself in harm’s way for a mission or for certain goals and policies. You don’t have a choice, but when you wear the flag on your shoulder, you understand that. This is what took me to Cambodia in 1997 for land-mine clearing where 20 years of active fighting had left its mark. We cleared thousands of mines, and as a result thousands of hectares of land was repurposed and returned to internally displaced individuals for farming.

What came after the military?

When I left the military in 2009, I joined the private sector for a year. In 2010, I joined the Alberta Emergency Management Agency as the managing director. I led a small team of 60. My military experience was relevant there. I had been working with first responders and emergency management personnel. It was an interesting opportunity as I started building and training the team.

Where were you when the Slave Lake fire started?

I was in the Provincial Operations Centre in Edmonton when the call came in on May 15, 2011. It was a very significant event in Alberta then. There was enormous energy in those fires with weather, fuel and topography all playing a significant role. I immediately helped evacuate the town and coordinated the provincial response operation.

And you were involved in the response to the High River floods in 2013?

I was the deputy minister of environment and sustainable resource development. Forestry and environmental first responders were under my portfolio. I was leading a large team of 3,500 people in Edmonton. We had some understanding of the weather patterns as we monitored the situation, but it was still unexpected. It went north, then east and then rain combined with the melting snowpack—it was a perfect storm. A lot of people were surprised by the scale of it. It was geographically far bigger than any disaster before. I had a supporting role in this incident. I had contributed some of my best people—water, soil, land, fisheries, wildlife and environmental experts, as any large disaster has an impact on the environment. These were individuals seconded to the Southern Alberta Recovery Task Force that was formed by the government at that time.

What are some of the things always on your mind as you dealt with these disasters?

You need to focus. Your training kicks in. Gaining situational understanding and setting priorities are important. However, you can never forget the human focus. After a disaster, people are in pain, if not physical then emotional. There are significant psychosocial elements. It’s real.

How did you find out about Fort McMurray’s evacuation?

I was at home, just east of Kamloops. I have the Alberta Management Alert on my phone and was tracking the fire on Google Maps. As I was wondering about the weather, I heard of the full-scale evacuation.

Why do you think you were sought to assist with the Fort McMurray situation?

I’m someone who can focus on long-term recovery. I know how things typically transition when communities return. My leadership, understanding of the sequence of events in disasters, planning tools from the military and the ability to lift your head up and look beyond the horizon—to give choices to leaders—is what I do in the private sector.

What were some of your priorities when you arrived in Fort McMurray?

My initial focus was on re-entry, followed by how do you create the conditions for a successful long-term recovery? What would first day of school look like? Construction season? Governance model? I was connecting with different levels of government to accomplish this.

What prompted your return and what followed?

I was brought back to establish a recovery task force in August. I was gathering information and then built a planning team that can understand and navigate complexity. The debris removal commenced in August—that was a priority. Getting contractors to do so safely and quickly was important. Do no harm is always a good lens to use during recovery operations. We wanted people to return to standing homes, and a lot of analysis went into that including consultation with the chief medical officer and Alberta Health Services. Critical things need to happen to set the conditions for rebuild to start. For this we have built a recovery campaign plan, which breaks down a series of ideas—how does the region recover in a timely manner? How do we get to prefire conditions?

Did you foresee becoming the leader of the task force?

No. I was humbled. I didn’t expect it.

How long do you estimate the rebuild to be?

Three years or more. There are layers of planning here. We want to be safe and compliant during the rebuild. With about 60 foundations poured thus far, we must continue to listen to the residents. The burn path didn’t touch every home, but it did touch every heart. My focus is on the community—the true recovery team of 90,000.

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