Behchokǫ̀ is the fifth NWT community evacuated due to wildfire this year.
The extreme wildfire season has some Yellowknife residents on edge and wondering what the city’s plan is for dealing with a wildfire or a possible evacuation.
In an interview with Cabin Radio on Tuesday, Alty said the city’s plans for how to deal with wildfires and possible evacuations are not public, but that guidance would be published this week broadly laying out what would happen if a wildfire threatened the city.
The overview released on Wednesday outlines two types of evacuations: tactical and strategic.
“A tactical evacuation would be required as a result of an imminent localized threat that requires immediate action and allows for little warning or preparation,” the document states. For example, accidents involving hazardous material, building fires and flooding might require this type of evacuation.
A strategic evacuation would be required if a larger-scale incident, such as a wildfire or a power outage in extremely cold temperatures, threatened part or all of the community.
If a strategic evacuation were required, the city would follow a three-step process, including issuing an evacuation notice, an evacuation order and an evacuation all-clear. Evacuation alerts and orders would be issued through the city’s emergency operations centre.
During the evacuation alert stage, careful considerations would be taken to evacuate vulnerable populations, such as people with medical challenges, those who are unhoused, and prisoners.
In addition, residents may need to be sheltered in a safe area or in a shelter that can withstand the potential impacts of the emergency, according to the city’s framework.
“For wildfires, this may mean a building that can accommodate a large number of residents for at least a couple of days,” the document reads.
“The building should have a metal roof and siding and added protection including backup power, communications, survival supplies, sprinklers on the roof, and air intake controls and purification. In Yellowknife, the multiplex and fieldhouse have fulfilled the role of evacuation centres on a number of occasions.”
In the case of a wildfire threat, the city would work with partners to assess the threat, determine vulnerable areas of the community and protect areas at risk by cutting fire breaks, implementing sprinklers and performing other actions.
If an evacuation due to a wildfire were required, the document states that the city would work with the GNWT to follow the evacuation framework, which includes a variety of steps – from understanding the threat and determining the risk area to issuing an evacuation order, arranging transportation and controlling traffic flow.
In Wednesday’s press release, the city stressed that every emergency is different, with the response depending on a variety of factors.
“This framework highlights these factors, but it cannot be stressed enough that these situations are dynamic, so a step-by-step plan cannot be reasonably made and it would be irresponsible to publish an inaccurate plan, as it will cause confusion for residents when real-time changes occur,” the city stated. (The framework does not contain, for example, specifics on how an airport or highway closure might affect an evacuation, though the city says it has planned for such scenarios.)
In a Wednesday Facebook post, Alty echoed statements she had made on Tuesday, outlining conditions that make a catastrophic fire in Yellowknife unlikely.
She also urged people to take care and stay calm.
How you can plan for evacuation
With or without municipal guidance, there are things anyone can do to prepare for a possible evacuation.
Jay Boast, a spokesperson for the territorial Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, said that with the extreme weather and fire conditions the NWT is seeing, preparing is “just good common sense” – even if you don’t expect to have to flee.
“Obviously, it’s a situation that nobody wants to be in,” he said of evacuations. “The more preparation that people can do, the better prepared they will be to get through it, with less complications and less discomfort.”
An emergency plan is intended to help your family know what to do in the event of an emergency.
It should identify escape routes from rooms, your home and your neighbourhood, meeting places to reconnect with your family, a designated caregiver for children, ways to meet special health needs, shelter for pets, emergency contacts and utility shut-offs, as well as home instructions.
Boast advised people to think about where they could go during an evacuation and people who could support them. Although the territory provides for evacuees’ basic needs, he said, staying with family or friends may be more comfortable.
In addition to an emergency plan, Maca recommends people prepare an emergency kit – a stash of supplies that would allow a household to be self-sufficient without power or running water.
“The idea is to get you through a 72-hour period,” Boast said, clarifying that this doesn’t mean people wouldn’t get support within the first 72 hours, or that the emergency would be over after 72 hours.
The 72-hour period, he said, is what Maca judges to be a reasonable amount of time for people to have supplies to cover their needs until they have access to basic services.
According to the Maca website, the kit should include:
About two litres of water per person, per day
Enough non-perishable food to last family members and pets at least three days
A first aid kit
A flashlight and extra batteries
A wind-up or battery-powered radio, with extra batteries (FM radio is generally a good way to get information during emergencies)
Eyeglasses or contact lenses
Prescriptions or special medications
Car keys, credit cards and cash
Garbage bags, moist towelettes and sanitation supplies
Chargers for cell phones and electronic communication devices
Seasonal clothing and footwear for each family member, being mindful of the type of clothing required to stay warm or cool at different times of year
These supplies can be packed in several bags or suitcases, so they are easy to carry. You should make sure they are easy to locate.
Boast said residents can create two kits – one for their home in case they have to shelter in place, and one for their car if they have to travel. Or simply prepare one kit that can be used in either situation.
On top of an emergency kit, Boast said people should pack – or plan for – a go-bag, which he said is not the same as the essential supplies packed in an emergency kit.
“When I think of a go-bag, I think of the things you would want to take with you, that you can carry, that are extremely important to you individually,” he said.
These might be personal items you wouldn’t want to lose and that are easy to carry, such as special photos. Even if these items are not packed, Boast said, creating a list of the items you might want to grab – and knowing where they are in your home – can help during an emergency, when anxiety is running high and people have to make tough decisions in little time.
Boast said the amount of time people have to pack during an evacuation varies.
“What we stress all the time is, if you can be prepared, then the variability of time is less of a factor.”
While Boast said evacuation planning and logistics might look different based on a variety of factors, advice on how to prepare individually applies across the territory.
At the same time, he encouraged people to think about their personal situations and what they need.
“Everyone’s situation is going to be a little bit different,” he said.