Premier Caroline Cochrane at a 2020 news conference. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
On Monday, we called Premier Caroline Cochrane to talk about the ongoing and evolving wildfire crisis across the Northwest Territories.
Cochrane’s main message to residents was to evacuate if ordered to do so.
“Every time that a resident stays in the community, it puts firefighters in the community at risk because we should be fighting the fires, and we end up having to divert our attention to make sure that people are safe,” she said.
Asked – twice – if she was confident in Yellowknife’s emergency plan, Cochrane said “Yellowknife has laid their plan out a little bit” and her government is engaging with the city to provide support where needed.
Cochrane also spoke about support she’s requesting from the federal government, how the territorial government will help people who are displaced, and what is working – and maybe not working – in the territory’s approach to wildfire response.
Listen to the interview here or read the full transcript below.
This interview was broadcast live on August 14, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Thank you very much for for making the time to join us. I’m sure you’re very busy. I’m sure you’ve been in briefings all morning. What do you think are the most important things you’re being told by your staff right now that our residents need to know?
Premier Caroline Cochrane: The most important thing is when an evacuation order is called, please, please leave the community. Every time that a resident stays in the community, it puts firefighters in the community at risk because we should be fighting the fires, and we end up having to divert our attention to make sure that people are safe.
What can you tell us about what the main concerns are today?
Today? We’re watching of course, we’re trying to finish getting people out of Fort Smith. There was some smoke last night that made it harder to get people out. Everyone that wanted to leave from Hay River seems to be evacuated now. Of course, we’re watching the Ingraham Trail and the road closings because we need roads open.
We will of course come back to the situation on Ingraham Trail in just a little bit Premier. Now I know the Northwest Territories has requested federal support from the Canadian Armed Forces and that is on the way What exactly are we getting in terms of that federal support? Can you spell that out for us?
We’ll be getting 100 firefighters. They’re I believe a Type III firefighter which means they’re not firefighters that can fight a direct fire. They will be able to do mop up of hotspots that are left behind. We’ll also have 20 (the number according to a GNWT press release later clarified 24) of them coming in to help us with logistics support, making sure the communities have what they need, that we can help evacuees, etcetera. And we’ll be getting two aircraft from the federal government.
The one question I have had from a lot of people today – we opened this up for people to send questions – the one I’ve had far more than any other is why didn’t we ask for federal help earlier?
Well, in fairness, there’s a protocol throughout Canada. So when jurisdictions have any kind of disaster, whether it be flooding, fires, etcetera, we help each other across jurisdictions, So we’ve got a lot of support from the other jurisdictions – New Brunswick Alberta, Ontario, Yukon, Nova Scotia, South Africa even – at a point where we figure that we don’t have the capacity, that’s when we call.
It’s not the first recourse. It’s the last. We’ve been fighting these fires for a couple of months now and our teams are tired. So at this point, we realized that we need to actually have their support. The other thing too is to recognize is that it’s not only the NWT that’s been faced with with forest fires. Canada had Canadian Forces sent to into Quebec, they were sent to BC, and now they’ve been deployed to Alberta and to the Northwest Territories.
Forgive me though, when you say that, essentially you say, “Well, we made a call, we feel like now is the time” – that feels like the wrong call. The time feels like it was some time ago because what we’ve just seen over the past couple of days is by anybody’s book a disaster. And surely we would have wanted the extra resources in earlier to try to prevent that rather than calling resources frankly, hours before multiple communities had to be evacuated.
We’ve actually been in contact with the federal government for more than just a day. It’s been a while actually that we’ve been negotiating this. Fort Smith was our area of concern. We had over 100 firefighters there. It was going well.
What happened yesterday was because of the high winds that happened in in the NWT and the flash fires. So Hay River was unexpected; Enterprise as well. The amount of traction that that fire got yesterday because of the wind was unprecedented. We we never projected that. So at that point, like I said, our priority went into evacuating the people from all those communities. And but again, Fort Smith has had the highest number of firefighters working on that fire.
Okay. You said you spent longer negotiating with the federal government. What was there to negotiate?
It’s not a matter of negotiating, it’s a matter of talking to them, finding out what resources they have, working with our teams, finding out what resources we need.
You have to have a plan. You can’t just pull them in and say we need help. You need to say this is exactly what we need.
I get this question as well about the Canadian Red Cross. Can you explain a little bit more about that relationship and why we don’t call them in to help in a situation like this?
The Canadian Red Cross helps with logistics most, and fundraising. So right now, like you said, we have logistics support already. We had the Joint Task Force also helping us. We were fine on that end.
And fundraising, we’ve been using the United Way. So if people want to donate to the Red Cross, they could as well, but we’ve been using the United Way for the fundraising.
So the supports again, Red Cross does not do firefighting. When a fire hits, if its in the forest, it’s the responsibility of the GNWT. Once its hits the boundaries of community, the local community takes the lead we work hand-in-hand with them, but that community has the option to phone the Red Cross. Behchokǫ̀, I believe, was in conversations with Red Cross when that fire was affecting their community. And it’s an option at anytime that we can use. But again, remembering they don’t fight fires.
No sure, but being realistic, Premier, who in Kakisa is phoning the Red Cross? Who in Sambaa K’e is phoning the Red Cross? Our communities don’t have the capacity that we want them to have, do they? We hear this a lot that it is the community’s call when to evacuate. Calling the Red Cross is the community’s call. Our communities have got barely anybody right now, and they’re doing the very best that they can. Is it appropriate and right that the NWT government the federal government say we’ll wait for Kakisa, for Sambaa K’e, for Enterprise or KFN to make the call?
Well in fairness, I mean, it sounds like we just leave them on their own, but that’s not true. As soon as there’s a fire risk, our regional emergency response team gets into effect. Our community emergency response team works every single day with the municipalities recognizing that some communities have more capacity and others don’t. So at any time, the communities – even today, I have communities that are reaching out to me and saying I need help with this part, I need help with that part – we are willing to help them with their plans, we’re willing to help them execute their plans. But we don’t just automatically take over a community.
In discussing the system that we have in place and with the utmost respect to the huge amounts of hard work that people have put in at every level over the entire summer, never mind the past few days, the system isn’t working Premier, isn’t that the case? When we look at what’s just happened over the last 48 hours, the structures that we have in place, the system that we have in place – it’s no longer adequate for the climate that we’re in. Isn’t that the case?
I don’t think so. I think right now it’s working. I do think that every community after Covid-19, every community went through their emergency plans and updated…
…but Premier, how can it be working? Look at what just happened.
So what would be your recommendation?
Surely, Premier, you would have to concede that the system we have in place – we’ve had multiple evacuations this summer, we’ve got communities in grave danger right now, people made it out alive by the skin of their teeth last night. Is the system working?
I believe that system needs to be reviewed at anytime that there is an emergency and that is the protocol – that they get reviewed. After Covid-19 they reviewed the emergency plans, after the floods they review their emergency plans, after the fires they’re reviewing their emergency plans.
We work closely with [NWT communities] and at any point that they need support. I’ve been on phone calls, like I said, all day today with leaders from different communities seeking support and we’re there for them.
I do think that in fairness this has been an exceptional year. The bad news is I think that this is not going to be the only year. So I do think that these things need to be discussed more. We’ll be calling a council of leaders meeting. They need to be discussed through the NWT territorial government, the municipal governments, the Indigenous governments and the federal government.
You just alluded to something that I think we all need to be quite concerned about, which is that you pointed out this is an exceptional year. But if things change the way we’re told they’re going to in the longer term, it will stop being exceptional. How worried are you that we have to get used to this annually?
I think that everybody needs to pay attention to climate change. I think it’s a reality. I am hoping that this is an exception, but I’m not naive to the fact that it is extremely hot and dry. And this is not only in the NWT, this is across the world we’re seeing a lot of instances that are not healthy for the climate, for the world, for the globe. And so therefore we have an ethical responsibility, all leaders, to sit down and make our climate mitigation and adaptation more of a priority. And that’s what I’ve been speaking to the federal government already over the last couple of weeks.
Tell us more about that. What have you been saying to the federal government? What can we expect?
I’ve been telling the federal government what’s happening in the Northwest Territories and that we’re experiencing one disaster after another disaster. And honestly, I think I’ve been telling them, “We’ve been asking you to address our infrastructure gaps for years and years decades.”
Basic road systems that people take for granted are not accessible in the Northwest Territories, and that’s not okay. When I’ve got an evacuation from a community and if there is no road system, if the smoke is too heavy, then I have people in danger. So I need the resources that we can get, the infrastructure projects, at the basic minimum, road systems into communities, so that if these things and when these things happen in the future, we don’t have one option to get people out. We have multiple options, just like everybody else does.
And did you get a satisfactory response?
I think yes. I think that there was no commitment. The reality is that they are paying attention. I’ve been saying it loud. I’ve been sending texts to all ministers, and I do think they are paying attention as well. The three northern territories, we’ve been working hard together and pushing the federal government. I have gotten reassurances that the last budget was an austerity budget and that they were tightening things up. But I’ve got an assurance that this next budget that’s coming out, we will see things for the North and I’m expecting them to keep that word.
We have just seen in the South Slave all of the best laid plans stretched to the absolute limit. I don’t think an emergency airlift is anyone’s plan at all, you know yesterday looked like the best people could do as a last resort. With that in mind how confident are you that Yellowknife has an effective plan right now?
At this moment, we’re actually working with the City of Yellowknife to review their plans. I’ve had conversations conversation with Mayor Alty this morning, again talking about what they need done and what supports they need from us and what supports they need from the federal government. And we’ve been actually phoning to see what we can do to intervene ourselves and also with the federal government.
Every community is different, depending on the situation. Yellowknife has laid their plan out a little bit. So the reality is, the road’s closed right now. If the road stays closed, then if it’s breached, we’ll be moving people from one side [of the city] to the other. Hopefully, one of the highways will be open. We’ll be moving people out by air if necessary.
But at this moment, it’s important for people to realize that Yellowknife is not currently at risk. That could change anytime because of the winds and fire is a strange beast. But at this point, we feel pretty confident, depending on what happens with the wind today.
And are you confident that Yellowknife has an effective plan right now?
I think that Yellowknife has a plan that can accommodate the resources that they have available to them. There is no plan in any community that is 100 percent foolproof. We know that even if a community has three roads out of it, if roads are closed – we can’t tell fire what to do – if those roads are closed then we’re counting on air. If it’s too smoky, now we’re counting on moving people. So I think Yellowknife has been diligently meeting regularly to try to define their plan.
We’re making a more comprehensive plan. But again, what I need residents to do are two things: I need residents to please firesmart your properties – if you can keep combustibles away from your property, away get rid of stuff you don’t need, try to make sure your sprinklers and that are set up.
But the bigger thing that I need people to do, is when we call, if we call, an evacuation order, I need people to leave. I know people are really concerned about their homes, their vehicles, their property, but your life is more important and every individual that stays behind puts our firefighters and our community emergency response team at risk because not only do we need to focus on the fires, we’re now focusing on keeping people safe. So please, whenever there’s an evacuation order, please leave. I know it’s tough, but if you want to help other residents, that’s the best thing you can do to help us.
What support is your government rolling out there to support the existing evacuation in the short-term?
Fort Smith, Hay River, Kakisa, and Enterprise have been evacuated to Grand Prairie, Fort McMurray and High Level. Those communities are setting up evacuation centres. We’re trying to redirect most of the people to Fort McMurray because they have longer-term accommodations.
We’re meeting with them, they’ll have the same benefits as every other evacuate. We’ll be looking at people that are on income support and how we can help them, and we’ll be implementing our policy for people that are without employment. They’ll be eligible for financial contribution as well.
And we still don’t know what the long-term looks like because the fires are raging as we speak. What’s your message to residents about what your government will do longer term to help them through this devastating time? And of course, the aftermath as well.
People will lose homes, we’ve already seen that; people will lose cabins, we’ve lost quite a few cabins. There is financial compensation for both of those. You might not get the huge house, but we will support you with accommodations, and we’ll support you with getting back here. Your assets, whether it’s home or a cabin, but depending on the amount of people, it may take time, but we’re not going to leave you stranded. We’ll make sure that you have a place to sleep and that you have food and clothing. We’re actually having a cabinet meeting this afternoon where we’ll be deciding for each cabinet minister and their individual portfolios, how we can support residents that might be displaced for a longer period.
I’ve got one more question for you. And frankly, it’s almost irrelevant right now, but it is important in the longer term. We’ve got thousands of evacuees that are supposed to be back here voting in less than two months. People are supposed to begin campaigning in the territorial election in three weeks. Those timelines seem frankly unsustainable right now, should the election be postponed?
I think that’s a decision I know that regular members have been discussing the last couple of days. I know that session just got postponed for a week. I do think that it does need consideration to make sure that through the NWT Elections, probably have a conversation with them as well.
We need to focus on the realities of people right now in my opinion. We have people that are worried about perhaps getting evacuated. We have people that have been evacuated. We have people that have lost homes. If I put myself in their position, the last thing I would be thinking about is an election. So in my personal opinion, that doesn’t come from a cabinet opinion. But my personal opinion, is that we need to focus on the priorities.
I wholeheartedly concur, but somebody’s got to make that decision. Just before I let you go Premier, I do want to ask you, is there anything else you would want to add that we have not touched on here?
Please evacuate – if an order comes, please leave. The other thing is now’s not the time to be bringing up your relatives and your friends. So please, if anyone’s got vacation, people that are coming into the NWT, I usually don’t say this, but if you could please reach out to your friends and family and ask them to hold off on their vacations. Right now, we’ve got a lot of emergencies happening and we need to focus on the residents here.