A file photo of Shane Thompson in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
One day after insisting the move was unnecessary, the Northwest Territories declared a territory-wide state of emergency to address an “unprecedented” wildfire situation.
Environment and communities minister Shane Thompson made the announcement on Tuesday afternoon, citing the NWT’s Emergency Management Act. He said it would allow the territorial government to access and deploy resources needed to protect communities and residents.
“We find ourselves in a crisis situation and our government is using every tool available to assist,” he was quoted as saying in a news release.
The territorial government said wildfire situations in its South Slave and North Slave regions were “rapidly evolving” and needs on the ground were quickly changing.
Five communities in the southern part of the territory – Fort Smith, Hay River, Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Enterprise and Jean Marie River – were forced to evacuate due to wildfires over the weekend.
NWT Fire said on Tuesday morning the risk had increased to Yellowknife and Ndılǫ as a wildfire had moved around seven kilometres closer to the city since Monday. Shortly before noon, the wildfire agency said wildfire ZF015 was burning 20 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife at its closest point but was not expected to reach the city in the coming days.
During a media briefing on Monday, asked by reporters whether he planned to declare a state of emergency, Thompson said it was unnecessary as the territory had the resources and connections it needed to deal with wildfires.
“All it has been is a phone call and they’ve been able to do it,” he said at the time.
“At this point, in time, a state of emergency would not do anything but cause more stress to people in the Northwest Territories.”
The City of Yellowknife declared a local state of emergency on Monday evening, understood to have been issued in part due to the lack of an NWT-wide state of emergency. The local state of emergency allows the city to commandeer the resources it needs to protect Yellowknife from potential wildfire threats.
Thompson said during a news conference Tuesday that the territory had the resources it needed up until 5pm that night, but following updates on wildfires in the territory, he realized things could quickly change and more was needed. He said the state of emergency will allow the territory to get things like equipment, hotel accommodations, and aircraft on short notice as needed.
“Within two hours of having the latest update, things changed in the area so we had to make that decision there,” he said, referring to Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River and Jean Marie River.
He added he decided to declare the state of emergency as a proactive measure rather than waiting until “two o’clock in the morning.”
Declaring a territory-wide state of emergency grants Thompson, and people he designates, additional powers to take “all necessary measures” to deal with an emergency. Under territorial legislation, the emergency will last up to 14 days and may be renewed by the minister if the emergency persists.
Thompson said Tuesday he has no current plans to use those additional powers, referring to the state of emergency as a “proactive tool.” He said he would have to discuss resources needed with affected communities and other members of Cabinet.
A total of 268 wildfires have burned more than 2.1 million hectares across the territory so far this year, 236 of which are actively burning.
Eight communities, or more than 20 percent of the territory’s population have been affected by evacuation orders, and dozens of cabins, homes and other buildings have been destroyed by wildfires.