The City of Yellowknife is about to explain more about how it will respond to an oncoming wildfire, Mayor Rebecca Alty says.
Alty told Cabin Radio the city plans to publish guidance this week setting out, in broad terms, what might happen if a wildfire threatened some or all of its 20,000 residents.
On this page, you can read a full transcript of our interview in which the mayor sets out Yellowknife’s approach. Scroll down to begin.
A 17-page emergency plan on the city’s website currently mentions forest fires only once – in the context of other communities having to flee to Yellowknife – and barely mentions evacuating the city.
By comparison, Hay River’s emergency plan stretches to more than 100 pages and has sections dedicated to both wildfires and the process by which the town rolls out an evacuation. (The town’s staff and residents are becoming experts in the field, having been forced to escape a flood in 2022 and a wildfire in 2023.)
Alty said plans to deal with wildfires and plans for a possible evacuation of Yellowknife do exist. They’re just not public.
“We recognize that people are anxious about that and want to see that, and so we’re working on getting that drafted for public release,” the mayor said.
“But it’s not to say that we’ve never thought of it before.”
Evacuation by road or air, which would be a logistical operation of extraordinary scale, is an absolute last resort. The city would try to move residents from affected areas to other portions of the community first.
Alty sought to stress throughout that Yellowknife’s conditions – from its lakeside location to its prevailing winds – make a catastrophic wildfire unlikely, though she acknowledged wildfire behaviour is changing and the likes of airport runways, once thought to be effective fire breaks, can now be readily jumped by extreme fires.
“I think as a council, emergency management is going to be a bigger and bigger focus in the years to come,” she said.
The mayor also revealed that the City of Yellowknife has not conducted firesmarting work – the act of preemptively clearing brush and other potential fire fuels – for the past two years. Federal funding to pay for firesmarting across many NWT communities kicks in next year.
Alty insisted that pause on firesmarting work was not a concern.
“Remain calm. Be smart. It’s not the time to go and have a campfire,” she said by way of advice to residents.
“That might sound like a silly message, but that’s what was happening in Halifax when the fires were actually in their community.
“Other things that people may want to park until we’ve had some rain are ATVs and motorbikes, especially those going into the bush, because those can have little sparks and start an unintended fire. And if there’s an opportunity to help residents of Behchokǫ̀ as they’re coming to our community, I’d encourage folks to do that.”
This interview was recorded on July 25, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: A lot of residents are understandably nervous right now. We’ve seen five communities in the territory be evacuated this summer. If a big wildfire came close to Yellowknife, what is the plan?
Rebecca Alty: What makes Yellowknife different than the other communities? Half of our community is surrounded by Great Slave Lake. We have the two old gold mines that have a lot of unintentional firesmarting because they’ve got the open pits and, really, no trees. We’ve got the Yellowknife Airport tarmac on one side. We’ve got the sand pits.
The area that the fires would approach would be from the west. Then you take in the wind factor, and the wind pattern is predominantly from the south or the southeast. So for example, today, the wind’s coming from the east. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning.
Every day we analyze the situation, and Yellowknife is not currently under threat. We’re meeting already with the GNWT, we’ve got the emergency operations going. Those are daily meetings and even more frequent checkpoints. And so it would be working together, the GNWT and the city, to address the situation.
Each situation would be different. If there was a threat, it would be all hands on deck to try to tackle that. That’s like the firesmarting that we’re seeing happen towards Behchokǫ̀ with the sprinklers on, and then the evacuation framework in our emergency plan. That’s understanding the threat, determining the risk area, determining whether it’s safer to evacuate or shelter in place, and then alerting residents that there may be a requirement to evacuate.
Once the need to evacuate is confirmed, we’d issue an evacuation order. If an evacuation is required, we’d identify routes and where people should meet. So for example, in Behchokǫ̀, they said folks could check in at their sports complex and then go to Yellowknife’s multiplex, and they had buses there for those who didn’t have transportation. We would be working to arrange transportation for those in need, whether it’s on the ground or in the air.
It’s not like today we can say: “If the fire comes from this direction, this is the tactical plan and at 12:05 we’ll be evacuating residents from Finlayson.” People would receive notifications like they did on their phones on Friday. And then it would be through media. If the internet goes down, there’s also door to door, driving around with old technology blasting.
A lot of scenarios have been drafted, but it’s really the territorial government and the city government working together. And of course calling in federal help, etc.
You mentioned an evacuation framework there. Is that a public document?
Because there is an emergency plan, and that doesn’t have that evacuation framework in it.
The evacuation framework has been drafted over the past couple of months. And the evacuation framework is still based on the emergency plan with roles and responsibilities – so you know, the city does this, the territorial government does that. But this has been drafted over the past couple of months.
Will that be released so residents can see it?
Yes. It might not have what people are looking for, like scenario one, two, or three – “what if it comes from Finlayson, what if it comes from Range Lake?” – but I think the key is, yes, the city and the territorial and the federal government would be working together, and the communications, and how you would hear about it.
I think what unnerves people is, if you go to the city’s emergency plan right now, evacuation is barely mentioned. You wouldn’t know there was an evacuation framework if you went and read it. Forest fires are only mentioned once and only in the context of what happens when a community like Behchokǫ̀ comes to Yellowknife. And there’s an appendix, for example, about a winter power outage, how we deal with that. There’s an appendix about how you deal with a community evacuating into Yellowknife. But there’s no sign, anywhere in the emergency plan, that anyone has even thought about: “What happens if we’re threatened by a wildfire?” Should that change?
I can understand how people will be concerned.
Those two that you identified, that are detailed in our plan, those are the most common reasons that we activate our emergency plan. So for example, this is the third time this year that we’ve been an evacuation centre. And the risk of power outages during the winter being extended, that’s another big risk for the community of Yellowknife. It hasn’t been as big of a risk that a wildfire would force the full evacuation of Yellowknife, to have that detailed plan in it.
However, we recognize that people are anxious about that and want to see that, and so we’re working on getting that drafted for public release. But it’s not to say that we’ve never thought of it before. It’s just that we’ve outlined in our current emergency plan, on the website, all of the top emergencies identified for Yellowknife.
So to spell that out: those plans do exist. There are documents somewhere that say, in the event of an evacuation, this is broadly speaking what we would imagine doing. In the event of a wildfire, these are the actions we expect to take. Those exist, they just don’t exist in the emergency plan or somewhere residents can view them. You’re going to make sure that happens.
Yeah. It’s always had the framework of who does what, but getting into more detail – and we’ll continue to evolve and analyze. So you know, the wind pattern, if it changes and it’s no longer a south or eastern wind direction – which is a big factor in wildfires and the risk to Yellowknife – if all of a sudden, winds coming from the west is our predominant wind pattern, that would change the risk profile to Yellowknife. But currently, south-southeast is the predominant wind pattern.
Even the severity of fires is changing quite markedly, and what previously were thought of as quite secure fire breaks – you mentioned Giant Mine’s tailings ponds, you’ve got Con Mine to the south, the airport to the west – we look at fires like Fort McMurray in 2016, and that wildfire jumped a pretty big river in order to reach the other side. Fires are starting to behave in more extreme ways than we’ve ever seen before. Can we still count on the likes of Giant and Con and the airport to provide the protection that we thought they did?
Yeah, no, exactly. And that’s where you do have to analyze and see what’s changing and how forest fires are changing and different.
The other factor that goes into wildfires is the type of trees that a community has. So if you have a lot of birch trees, that’s a low-risk fuel. If you have more of the spruce, that’s a higher-risk fuel. So there’s a lot of stuff that goes into a forest fire and the threat and the evacuation.
I think as a council, emergency management is going to be a bigger and bigger focus in the years to come.
Listening to you talk about the fact we do have some plans for evacuations, if they were needed – that would have to be an operation on a grand scale. If a city of 20,000 people needed to get out of here, we’ve got one road south, and we might not even be able to use that road. Bluntly speaking, to what extent is it possible? What would we need to be able to get everybody out of here safely?
There may not be a need to evacuate the whole community, if it’s only one section of the community. But yeah, it would be calling in the federal government to do the operation and get planes activated and mobilized.
And before that, we would be moving people around the community if we could?
Exactly. And it would be all hands on deck with clear-cutting – the Yellowknife Fire Department, the ECC firefighters, the airport firefighters. We’d have military, private contractors going in to do that brush clearing and getting all those sprinklers set up. It’d be not just a, “Oh, it’s on our back door.” It’s all hands on deck.
When can residents expect to have something available to them online that gives them a better sense of what the city’s plans are here?
I don’t have a date for that, but we are going to work on some key messages and some short points, basically the stuff that I outlined there, that people can see with their own eyes and be like, OK, OK, OK.
So as-soon-as, for that.
Hoping to get that out tomorrow.
I know, next year, federal funding for firesmarting kicks in in quite a big way, not just for Yellowknife but for other communities as part of a new agreement. What sort of firesmarting have we done this year?
This year, we haven’t. You can’t actually firesmart until the spring or the fall, you can’t go during bird nesting time. Last year, they weren’t actually able to get to firesmarting because when they came to do it, they weren’t able to. That is another challenge, is to fit the little bit of time. With the climate change, too, it’s like, “Oh, that used to be an OK time to do firesmarting.”
So we haven’t firesmarted this year or last year.
Is that a concern?
No. So we are focused, again, on analyzing the current fires, keeping an eye and making sure that we’re following… you know, if there’s any threat, that we’re activating Level 2 plan.
There could be residents who hear that and worry that a couple of years has gone by, we are looking at a lot of wildfires this year, and we haven’t firesmarted. Taking that into account and everything else we’ve spoken about, what is the overarching message to people who are worried?
Remain calm. Be smart. It’s not the time to go and have a campfire. That might sound like a silly message, but that’s what was happening in Halifax when the fires were actually in their community.
Other things that people may want to park until we’ve had some rain are ATVs and motorbikes, especially those going into the bush, because those can have little sparks and start an unintended fire. And if there’s an opportunity to help residents of Behchokǫ̀ as they’re coming to our community, I’d encourage folks to do that.