A City of Yellowknife fire division vehicle near a line of sprinklers in Grace Lake. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The City of Yellowknife is declaring a local state of emergency, saying it doesn’t mean an evacuation is coming but allows the city to commandeer the resources it needs.
A state of emergency is different from the system of evacuation notices – they are completely separate. This doesn’t fit into the grid NWT residents have had hammered into them in recent months of an evacuation notice, then an alert, then an order.
Instead, a state of emergency allows the city to use legislation to “acquire or use real or personal property, whether private or public, considered necessary to prevent, combat or alleviate the effects of the emergency.”
Three city councillors said this is the first state of local emergency Yellowknife has ever declared, though that couldn’t be immediately independently verified. (States of emergency in the city during the Covid-19 pandemic were declared by the GNWT, not the city.)
Cabin Radio understands the city took the step of making a local declaration after being surprised when the NWT government did not do the same thing earlier on Monday afternoon.
At the time, asked by Cabin Radio what would trigger a state of emergency declaration from the GNWT, environment minister Shane Thompson said: “The state of emergency is if we’re not able to get the tools, the equipment we need, but I can tell you right now, the departments are working within the Government of Northwest Territories, the Government of Canada, and businesses and private industry has been working together. All it has been is a phone call and they’ve been able to do it.
“So at this point, in time, a state of emergency would not do anything but cause more stress to people in the Northwest Territories.”
Yellowknife’s mayor and council, in a special meeting later on Monday evening, saw it differently.
While Mayor Rebecca Alty said she “can’t speak for the GNWT,” she said a local state of emergency would allow Yellowknife to commandeer the contractors and equipment it needs.
“At this point in time we are looking to mobilize every bit of heavy equipment that we can,” said city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett, adding that the state of emergency gave contractors the ability to break their current contracts and join projects building wildfire defences without having to face the consequences.
Those defences include a fire break at the Sand Pits on Yellowknife’s western periphery, which Bassi-Kellett said was seen by the territorial government as a “very important line of defence.”
The state of emergency trigger point was when wildfire ZF015, around 30 km west of Yellowknife, reached Boundary Creek, Bassi-Kellett said. But at a media briefing on Monday evening, officials wouldn’t be drawn on where, exactly, the trigger points for evacuation notices, alerts and orders lay.
Those points shift with wildfire behaviour, Bassi-Kellett suggested.
“We will look, with the benefit of technical advice from ECC, at what the behaviour is like for that fire. We’re going to monitor that for the point that it does make sense to tell Yellowknifers in certain areas that are deemed to be at risk, based on projected wildfire behaviour, what might need to be done,” she said, using an initialism for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change.
No detailed planning for an airlift has been done, she added, asked if Yellowknife had watched the dramatic airlifts in Hay River and Fort Smith and prepared for a similar last resort.
Sheltering in place then sheltering elsewhere within the community would be the first steps, Bassi-Kellett said.
“It would have to be something that would be a massive kind of incident for anything beyond that, and I think our geography works in our favour,” she told reporters.
That geography is the Con and Giant mine tailings ponds south and north of the city respectively, the bay to the east, and the airport and Sand Pits to the west, all of which are seen as natural fire breaks – to which contractors are now adding man-made equivalents.
This week, members of the military will join city firefighters, GNWT fire crews and, with the state of emergency, the number of general contractors able to join that work will double, city staff said.
Workers and equipment from the Giant Mine remediation project, for example, could be co-opted. A spokesperson for the project team was working on a response as of 8pm on Monday, asked if the remediation project was expecting to free up resources.
But amid all this, you don’t need to head out there with your personal chainsaw yet.
Councillor Steve Payne said Yellowknife has “lots of amateur lumberjacks” who might be prepared to help out, and asked if people might be needed to volunteer. “We’re not at that point yet but we may want to consider that in the future,” said Bassi-Kellett.
The state of emergency will run for one week, at which point it can either be extended or dropped.
There is some hope that forecast rain on Thursday might mean the state of emergency can be rescinded, though weather forecasts don’t always pan out – and defences need to hold out for two more days even if that rain arrives on schedule.