A snow removal sign in Yellowknife. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife is awash in snow, far more so than at this time last year, and it’s causing chaos for pedestrians and drivers in some parts of the city.
According to Environment Canada’s records, 46.6 cm of snow has fallen in the Northwest Territories’ capital since the start of November – with a week still to go.
The city is on track for its heaviest November snowfall since 2008, when 70 cm fell across the whole month. By comparison, November 2021 brought just 13.9 cm.
One consequence of this year’s dump is obvious: many of the city’s streets are proving tricky to navigate, either on foot or by car, and some residents are becoming angry.
On social media, Yellowknifers have shared images of stranded vehicles: a cab beached on snow along Franklin Avenue, a car marooned while attempting to exit a laneway.
“Get your act together,” read one tweet, alleging that “every year, the lax attitude towards snow removal continues.” And that’s far from the only complaint.
Chris Greencorn is the City of Yellowknife’s director of public works, overseeing the way municipal staff handle snow removal and clearance.
We asked Greencorn to walk us through the way the city is responding.
The sheer amount of snow “throws a little bit of a monkey wrench at us, as we don’t obviously budget for almost a 500-percent increase” in snowfall year-on-year, he said.
“When we get this type of accumulation, it really presses us to the max.”
Greencorn said eight staff, four working overnight and four during the day, are doing their best to keep streets clear while removing snow from parking lots, bus shelters and other pieces of city infrastructure.
But he acknowledged that residents’ frustrations were “obviously reasonable.”
“It’s difficult, especially anyone with a car in this type of accumulation,” Greencorn said.
Below, you can read a full transcript of the interview.
This interview was recorded on November 23, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: There’s been a ton of snow in and around Yellowknife over the past few weeks. What are the challenges in coping with that from the city’s perspective?
Chris Greencorn: There’s definitely been a ton of snow. By our numbers and taken from Environment Canada, there’s about a 480-percent increase from this time last year. That throws a little bit of a monkey wrench at us, as we don’t obviously budget for almost a 500-percent increase in snow removal and snow clearing. An accumulation of that magnitude in a short period of time presents challenges, but our staff are working on it with the equipment and labour resources at our power.
What have you done to adjust as best you can?
We’ve started our actual snow removal schedule earlier than last year. I don’t believe we started actual removal – the exercise of shutting the road down, doing complete removals and trucking it away – until December of last year. So we’re a little bit ahead of schedule on that.
Really, the crew adjust per event. Depending on the accumulation and the severity of the event, they have a minimum staff of four people out on the road at one time: two graders and two belly ploughs, which are equipped with sanders. And they’ll call in appropriate staff as they see fit. In saying that, that’s generally a night-time operation from 11pm to 7am. We also have to maintain daytime operations. So it’s a bit of a balancing act: we also have to support water breaks, parking lot removals such as the Multiplex, YK arena. We’re also doing snow removal at bus shelters, sidewalks, snow removal along city property. So it’s quite the endeavour. When we get this type of accumulation, it really presses us to the max.
How many people in total are involved in this?
Snow removal proper is eight operators total. Four on shift at any time in the two graders and two belly ploughs, and then four for the next day for those other activities that I just mentioned. And then we have some maintainers that help with other, smaller things such as placing signs and things of that nature.
There have been times where it has seemed as though the snow is falling faster than the city can get to everything. There’s a frustration there on behalf of a lot of residents who find that sidewalks really quickly become impassable or they can’t even get a vehicle out of a lane in downtown Yellowknife. What do you say to people who feel frustrated that the city isn’t keeping up and that it’s becoming difficult to move around?
That’s obviously reasonable. It’s difficult, especially anyone with a car in this type of accumulation. What’s important to note is that we budget based on historical trends. So it’d be a little irresponsible for us to budget for this type of accumulation, and have it not occur. We budget on a historical trend and that’s what we try to accomplish with our staffing level.
The other thing is it’s a bit of a chicken-and-mouse game: city snowploughs plough snow off to the side, residents and businesses downtown have to plough sidewalks back into the road. So we manage that as best we can but unfortunately, when it comes down this fast, there’s just not much to be done about it until we have time to fully catch up.
Is there any advice you can give to residents in the interim, if they find that somewhere is particularly impassable or they have a problem?
If there’s a particularly impassable spot, they can always use the Click and Fix app. They can phone in to City Hall, we’re definitely open to taking calls from residents – but with the expectation that we have a priority-based system. Our priorities are based on a number of things, such as emergency routes, transit routes, number of people impacted, general operations of the city at large, things like that.
Also, please don’t shovel your driveway snow into the road. That also helps build up accumulation. All private snow should remain on your property except sidewalk snow – that’s obviously allowed to be put off the side into the parking lanes and things like that.
Are there likely to be any consequences in terms of having to direct so much effort so early in the season into this?
It really depends on what we see for the rest of the winter. We’ve had some winters where it’s been spring-heavy, for example. Rght now, it’d be hard to predict that. If I had to say, I would guess we’re going to be a little bit over-budget in snow removal. But again, it’s really early for me to say that. We’ll just have to wait and see what type of events we have throughout the winter and take it from there.
I’d also like to thank the staff. They’re going at it pretty hard and doing the best they can. And I’d like to thank residents for their patience. I know it’s tough and I know people can get frustrated trying to get kids to school and things of that nature. I’d ask folks to bear with us. We’re doing the best we can with the allocated resources.
Once the cold weather hits, the snow tends to tighten up quite a bit and allows us to shape it and manage it a little better. These warmer temperatures with this type of accumulation also makes it pretty tough, it stays pretty soft and goopy. So yeah, just hang in there – and we really appreciate everybody hanging in there with us.