A wildfire burns beyond Highway 3 outside Yellowknife in the early morning of August 15, 2023. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio
The author of a comprehensive study of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire sees “echoes” of the run-up to that devastating fire in Yellowknife this week, he told Cabin Radio.
Journalist and author John Vaillant spent the seven years after that wildfire researching a book, Fire Weather, that was published earlier this year.
Nobody was killed in that fire – which Vaillant says was “almost a miracle” – but tens of thousands of people ended up pouring down a highway with flames on both sides as a fire engulfed the city.
That book concluded that the disaster in Fort McMurray occurred in large part because authorities leading the response underestimated how the fire would behave.
Vaillant calls the new, more extreme fires brought about by climate change “21st-century fires,” and points to Yellowknife’s unusually hot, dry summer, and its “abnormally dry” drought code rating, as similarities with Fort McMurray, another boreal forest community.
However, there are some important differences.
Mike Westwick, a wildfire information officer for the NWT government, said relative humidity around Yellowknife stands at 30 to 35 percent, rather than the extreme 10 percent seen in Fort McMurray seven years ago.
“The situation is not the same as in 2016,” Westwick said at a briefing for reporters on Tuesday evening.
“This doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a very serious situation, and you can rest assured that our wildfire management team is not underestimating the potential threats here.”
As of Tuesday evening, fire ZF015 was around 20 kilometres west of Yellowknife with an easterly wind gradually pushing it closer.
The city had issued an evacuation alert for three western areas as crews dug fire breaks and set up sprinklers. Yellowknife’s mayor said the plan would be to shelter in place, moving people around the community if need be, if conditions worsened.
“Yellowknife is at enormous risk and obviously, the thing that determines all this ultimately is wind direction. The wind will decide,” Vaillant said, speaking about 20 minutes before the evacuation alert was issued.
“Otherwise, all the conditions are there for a really dangerous scenario … it’s very concerning to be watching this from down south, and it has lots of echoes of Fort McMurray, which was four times bigger than Yellowknife.”
Below, you can listen to the interview or read the full transcript.
This interview was recorded on August 15, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: I appreciate you are not an expert on anything Yellowknife related, but you have studied not just wildfire behaviour, but community behaviour and leadership behaviour faced with wildfires. What sort of parallels are you drawing when you watch what’s happening in the Northwest Territories and Yellowknife right now, with what you studied in Fort McMurray?
John Vaillant: It’s very concerning, especially after what happened in Enterprise and also in Maui. One of the strongest similarities between Fort Mac in 2016 and Yellowknife in 2023 is: it’s peak fire season, it’s an extraordinary fire season and it’s the boreal forest. And so that combination of extra-high temperatures, extreme dryness and a very flammable ecosystem, namely the boreal forest, equals explosive fire behaviour, and we’ve been seeing that all summer long, all through the boreal, from literally coast to coast of Canada, and Yellowknife is right in the middle.
Yellowknife is at enormous risk and obviously, the thing that determines all this ultimately is wind direction. The wind will decide. Otherwise, all the conditions are there for a really dangerous scenario and Yellowknife’s neighbours are already living through it in really frightening ways. So it’s very concerning to be watching this from down south. And it has lots of echoes of Fort McMurray, which was four times bigger than Yellowknife.
Talk to me about some of those echoes. In Fort McMurray, leading up to the day when everybody had to get out, what sort of approaches were being taken? What sort of decisions were being taken?
There is a kind-of standard approach to a boreal fire in Canada approaching a community. And when it gets to a certain distance away, some kind of emergency declaration is issued, agencies begin to rally and really focus. And so that happened in Fort McMurray on May 1, two days before the fire entered the city. I believe it’s happening now in Yellowknife. This is all really good. There’s also a very heavy effort on building fire breaks around the side of the city from which the fire is approaching. And Fort McMurray did that very earnestly, night and day, through May 1, May 2 and May 3. There’s also efforts to set up sprinkler systems along that fire-facing front of the community, and that’s something Fort McMurray did.
What was clear was no-one had considered the possibility of a full evacuation of the city. It simply wasn’t on the radar. There was very careful thought given to the fire-facing communities and there was a sense that the rest of the community could absorb them that they could be maybe evacuated preemptively, and some of them were. Then the wind changed a little bit. I think the winds are pretty light up in Yellowknife right now, from what I understand. And in Fort McMurray, when the wind changed, those evacuations for the most vulnerable neighbourhoods were rescinded and people were encouraged to return home and shelter in place, which means to stay put, but be ready to go at a moment’s notice. And then beyond that there were discussion of cat guards and dozer operators doing their very best, and, you know, “we’ll keep you informed.” The main thrust, though, was literally “keep calm and carry on” and, you know, “don’t let your imagination run away from you,” don’t panic.
The tension with leadership, Ollie, is they on the one hand have a responsibility not to cause panic, but on the other hand, in their efforts to be calming, they can actually run the risk of minimizing a really potentially enormous threat. And I think that’s really what happened in Fort McMurray. So at 11am on May 3, there was a press conference – literally an hour and a half before the fire breached the city, authorities were still talking about “have a plan, get your kits ready, send your kids to school and go to work and do what you need to do, and we’ll keep you informed.” And who informed the people of Fort McMurray that there was a fire in their city and they had to evacuate right away? The fire. There was no time. That’s how fast that happened.
Something that is really difficult for human beings to understand about 21st-century fire is: it moves way faster than you think it’s going to. You see the smoke cloud on the horizon and then, you know, look at Maui in Hawaii, look at Enterprise, Northwest Territories. Look at Lytton, BC in 2021. It’s happened over and over again. “Well, the fire was over there and then suddenly it’s over here.”
Ollie, this is really important to understand: you can do a great job with the fire breaks, you can do a great job with the sprinklers, but if the wind is strong enough – and it doesn’t have to be that strong, it can be, you know, 20 or 30 km/h – the embers from that remote fire can carry right over the top. They carry right over the fire breaks, they can carry over the lines of sprinklers and land in the heart of the community and light it up if it’s dry enough. And that’s what blew people’s minds over and over again, was embers would land in the grass, embers would land in the mulch in their garden, embers would land in the gutter of their home and burst into flame. And it almost didn’t seem possible. But when it’s dry enough and hot enough, and you’ve had a summer like we’ve had – which has been bone dry and unseasonably hot, things are really dried out and primed – that’s a recipe for fast-moving, explosive fire.
This might be a good point to explain about the research you undertook when you studied this. How long did you spend analyzing the Fort McMurray fire, what steps did you take?
Ollie, in 2016, I was as shocked as anybody else when I saw on my Twitter feed the city of Fort McMurray, 90,000 people living and working there, a powerhouse of the province and of the country… seeing that entire city disappear beneath a pyrocumulonimbus fire cloud that went 15 kilometres into the stratosphere was shocking and really frightening.
I’m a journalist, I’m a writer based in Vancouver, I write non-fiction books about collisions between human beings and the natural world. I think it’s an interesting and important topic, especially now. And so I started to look at this fire more closely, as remote as it was, and what I saw was temperatures that were 15C to 20C higher than normal, the relative humidity was down around close to 10 percent – which is how dry it is in Death Valley – and in spite of that, some of the lakes around Fort McMurray were still covered in ice. There were car-sized blocks of ice sitting on the Athabasca River, right in town. And so it creates a real conflict in our minds, you know: is it just the cold, icy north, or is this a desert? Is this southern California? And so basically what you had there were southern California fire conditions: 32C, 33C and 11-percent relative humidity with wind and fire, but then you had a boreal forest.
Most Canadians know that the boreal forest burns like crazy even when it isn’t super-hot. And now, when you have climate change-enhanced higher temperatures, you have an even more intense fire scenario. So I was looking at all that, and looking at the evacuation and looking at how, frankly, the authorities – both on the forestry side and on the municipal side – really underestimated the hazard this fire posed in spite of the fact that the predictions for very dry conditions that spring and summer, high fire risk that spring and summer, were excellent. And then the more immediate meteorological predictions for the week out, for the day out, hour by hour, were all precisely correct.
All those people did their job and did it perfectly, and where things fell apart was in how people interpreted that information within Fort McMurray. They understood that there was a real risk – as people understand there’s a real risk in Yellowknife – but they approached the fire more like it was a 1990s fire than a 21st-century fire. And what startles and endangers citizens in a 21st-century fire scenario are the embers, the wind and the speed of the fire as it moves across ground, and through fuel, that has already been pre-dried by extremely hot temperatures and a steady trend of drought. And that is the story of the boreal forest over the past several decades.
John, the fire in Fort McMurray had a set of conditions that came together that you just described. Now, Yellowknife right now does not have all of those conditions. For example, temperatures right here this week are actually a little low for the season, after we have had a long period of much hotter weather than we’d normally expect. We’re actually a little cool right now. So there are some differences. Is what happened in Fort McMurray the result of a precise set of conditions converging? Or are there broader lessons here?
That’s a really good question, Ollie. And it’s something I spent years pondering and writing about and researching. I started working on this book, Fire Weather, in 2016, shortly after the fire in Fort McMurray burned the city. And it took me seven years to publish it, which is why it came out this year, in this historic fire year for Canada and for other places around the world as well.
It’s precise conditions, but it’s also trend. All through the end of April and the beginning of May 2016, unseasonable heat. There was dryness that was impacted by El Nino, which resulted in the lower snowpack for the previous two years. There are long-range conditions, which we could call trends, and then there’s short-term weather.
And so it’s great that it’s cooler in Yellowknife right now but, if you’ve had an extraordinarily hot summer, and you’ve had potentially drought conditions up there – I don’t know if you have?
We’re abnormally dry right now, in the drought code.
OK, so that’s something to be really concerned about. Cooler temperatures are not going to fix the dryness problem. What you have are ground fuels, grasses, roots, shrubs, bushes, trees, that are likely more flammable than they would ordinarily be. And temperature plays a major role. Wind plays the biggest role of all. Rain, obviously, can be a real showstopper for a fire, but light rain won’t necessarily put the fire out.
So right now, if you’ve had unseasonable heat and extreme dryness, it’s wise to assume that those conditions are still a major factor in the fuels around Yellowknife right now. If it was me, if I was up there, what I would really be paying attention to is the weather forecast, obviously, which I’m sure everybody is, but really looking at wind direction. What you want is a nice, strong easterly blowing the fire back toward the west, away from the city. And if you’ve got three or four days of those with some rain coming, I would relax a little bit. But if it’s unclear what might be happening, or if it looks like the winds could keep trending toward Yellowknife, then I would really start thinking carefully about an evacuation plan and imagining what that might be like, and that’s something that they did not do in Fort McMurray literally until the last minute.
How it went in Fort McMurray was: We are going to cut cat guards on the fire side of the city, we’re going to put up sprinklers, we’re gonna get some water bombers in there – and then the embers blew right over the top of that, landed in the city, ignited the city wholesale. Suddenly firefighters were just running around like a terrible game of Whack-a-Mole as entire blocks of houses burst into flames, something none of them had ever seen before or were prepared to deal with. And then it suddenly went from “we’re going to hold this fire at bay outside the city” to, in a matter of hours, “how do we keep the death toll as low as possible?”
This happened in a matter of hours, Ollie, in Fort McMurray, which is a wealthy, well-equipped city full of really competent people and great equipment. It’s probably the best-equipped city in the North. And in spite of that, the fire overwhelmed everybody and changed the evacuation from “we’ll all go to the rec centre on McDonald Island,” which is in the middle of town, to “how do we get everybody out of here without them burning alive on the road,” which is what happened in Maui, and what happened in Paradise, California in 2018. People burned in their cars, and that’s a real thing.
Canada has been extraordinarily lucky so far with only one fatality in Slave Lake, only two in Lytton, none during the fire in Fort Mac – which is practically a miracle, given the scenario and the panic that ensued, frankly, because of a delayed evacuation. This is what has happened in the past, and Yellowknife shows many of the characteristics of those communities. And the weather has not been kind.
John, at this point, we’ve already discussed the responsibility that municipal officials feel to not panic people. People listening to this or reading the transcript of it will obviously have reached this point and will probably have concerns. We of course, have a responsibility as well, as reporters, to try to present things very carefully and to try, frankly, to do sometimes the same thing. We feel that responsibility not to scaremonger, not to panic. But people at this point will probably have questions. What would your advice be? And I’m putting you on the spot here. I know that. What would your advice be to residents in Yellowknife who’ve got this far, and who’ve heard what you had to say, versus their natural instinct to say, “I’ll wait until the city tells me what to do”?
What the citizens of Fort McMurray gave us, at a dear cost to them, is a glimpse of the future. They saw the future, and I interviewed them about it, and they told me what they went through. And they were in a situation on May 2 – even on the morning of May 3, which is when the fire overran the city – very similar to where citizens of Yellowknife are right now. They’re aware there’s a fire out there, the leadership is giving them instructions and trying to keep things calm, “let’s wait and see.” And waiting and seeing did not work in Fort McMurray. Waiting and seeing made for a much more dangerous situation.
I’m a husband and a father. I live in a flammable home, as all homes are. And if that home was in Yellowknife right now – you know, my kids are upstairs – and knowing what I know, and hearing what firefighters and citizens have told me between Australia, California and Alberta, what I would be doing right now is planning my escape route. I would probably be packing a bag of the things that I really wanted to have with me, or at least have them all gathered in the same room if they weren’t in a duffel bag, but have them where I could gather them in a few minutes. I would want to know where they are. These would be passports, valuables, photos, computer stuff, medication, I would want to have that stuff handy, so that I’m not looking for it in a panic. And then I would be thinking about, well, if the fires coming from the west, how am I going to escape to the east? And then, you know, worst-case scenario is the embers overshoot the town – which is what they did in Fort McMurray, fire was burning on all sides, on both sides of the escape route. What do I do if the road is blocked? I believe there’s a big lake by Yellowknife and that’s something I would be thinking about, in terms of boats and where might I go?
I really hear what you’re saying, Ollie, and I really sympathize with the mayor and the fire chief. You don’t want to alarm people unduly but when these things get going, they go faster than you can respond to. There was a comment I think the mayor made to CBC North about don’t run a lot of different scenarios, you know, don’t try to game this out. But that’s actually, I think, really what a prudent person would do. You’re in your home and you want to be with your family, you want to figure out where people are and how to get a hold of them. But you also want to think about “if I need to go in an hour, where am I going to go?” That might be a good rule of thumb: “if I needed to bail out in an hour, how would I do it?”
I’m a calm person. I’m sort-of a slow thinker, I like to be careful about what I do. But listening to interviews coming out of Maui, talking to other journalists from the North who have watched what’s happened in Hay River and Enterprise, knowing what I’ve been told by Slave Lake firefighters and Fort Mac firefighters, none of those guys or women could believe what happened. They were just reacting, you know? And you want to avoid that situation.
There have been these terrible lessons that people just like us have learned, really competent, together people. This isn’t some problem in a faraway place where people have no resources, these have happened in wealthy, together communities, where people are normally organized, and the fire has completely scrambled that. That’s what 21st-century fire can do now. So we have to know that it can do that now and bravely consider that possibility, even as we have faith in our leadership and have faith in the extraordinarily brave and dedicated firefighters and forestry personnel who are working on this fire 24/7. We know they take it seriously. They’re on the front line. They deserve our deepest gratitude. But it doesn’t mean they can 100-percent control that fire, especially if the wind gets hold of it.
The wind? Really, all bets are off. If the wind blows over the city hard … every time is a roll of the dice. Folks in Yellowknife now have a lot of data to work with from those other fires. Keep your eyes open and really watch the wind.