Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty meets with Canadian Armed Forces soldiers on August 23, 2023. Photo: Master Corporal Alana Morin/Joint Task Force North
No matter which evacuated NWT community you’re from, the current situation is really hard. There’s so much uncertainty and no end date.
In Yellowknife, officials say they have begun work to figure out how everyone gets back, even if there isn’t a date for that yet.
If you’ve come here hoping we’re going to give you a defined date, we’re sorry – nobody has that yet. If you see anything circulating online, it’s a rumour, not a fact.
But what we do have is a detailed interview with Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty and the city manager, Sheila Bassi-Kellett, explaining the work that’s going into bringing people home.
On this page, they set out how they’re planning for that moment and what you can expect when the green light finally arrives.
Here’s how we’d summarize the plan they’re describing:
There’ll be a “phased re-entry” where the most critical people come back first
Who are they? The people who can get all the most vital services running again, from health, water and sewer to groceries and gas
We don’t yet have the final list of who’s going to be prioritized
From the moment the GNWT decides the fires are no longer a threat, it’ll take an estimated five days to get priority people back and then begin bringing everyone else home
There may or may not be further phases that try to bring people back in the most organized way possible
Even if you think you’d be just fine without groceries or a hospital, the city has to figure out getting water and sewer up to speed before it can safely let you be at home again
Keep reading for the full discussion.
We’ll bring you the finalized plan in as much detail as we can as soon as it’s available. The date for that is not yet known but will be “very soon,” Bassi-Kellett said.
We’ll also bring you that information for Hay River, Fort Smith and other communities as it becomes available.
This interview was recorded on August 24, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What does the re-entry plan look like?
Rebecca Alty: Re-entry has two parts. One is that NWT Fire, ECC determines the fire is no longer a threat to Yellowknife and the territorial government can rescind the evacuation order. And then part two is re-entry planning, for the likes of essential services. For that I’ll hand it over to Sheila, because staff have been working a lot on that plan.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: It’s been 10 days that feel like 10 years. Right away, when the state of local emergency kicked into gear? Phase one was all hands on deck, let’s make sure we build the defences needed to protect the city. We got a lot of stuff done, and it transitioned into how we stabilize ourselves to be able to defend – always testing the sprinklers, making sure all the defences are in place.
Yellowknife Fire Division has been doing a ton of work around pre-planning, because we have a lot of firefighters that have come into the community from other places, a lot of vehicles and trucks that have come in. They’re really instrumental should a fire come close enough to Yellowknife, where we have embers blowing in all kinds of directions, hitting structures – they need to be there to be able to respond. What are our critical assets that we need to make sure are protected? How do we make sure those things are in place? That’s been a lot of the work under way. At the same time, we can’t wait until we get the thumbs-up that the fire is no longer a risk before we start doing the planning around how demobilization and re-entry start.
We are small and mighty and I’m so proud of my team, but we haven’t done something of this scale before and we did reach out to the Government of the NWT to formally ask for some support. We have had support from a group called the Canada Task Force 2. These guys are basically an all-hazards disaster response team, 10 people on the ground that live, eat and breathe responding to large-scale emergencies. They were on the ground with Fort McMurray, they were on the ground with Slave Lake. They were on the ground with the Calgary floods. They’ve gone through this process before and they have so many templates, tools. They are so knowledgeable in these areas.
Those 10 people are embedded with our incident command. So I’m the emergency ops director, I have two people that are with me. Our logistics group has two people with them. Our director of operations has someone with him as well. They’re really supporting our work and we are now following an incident command model. There’s no longer the same “senior leadership team” at the city. We are now directors of logistics, structure planning, operations, information. There are lots of different pieces of this that are flowing.
Operations, obviously, is the structural protection – everything you’ve seen around the heavy equipment, making all of the fire breaks, putting all the sprinkler rigs out there, dealing with municipal services. We need to make sure garbage was removed because of the number of bears that are coming into the community. We’ve got the fire department integrated with operations. Now we have logistics, right? We’re feeding 250 people, we’ve got to make sure we have supplies, transportation, our facilities are ready. For planning? A lot of this is planning: identifying the critical infrastructure, what we’re doing to protect that. What we’re going to do around demobilization, what we’re going to do around re-entry and recovery. Those are all really important pieces for us.
Every day at 12:30, our team meets with our Canada Task Force 2 colleagues, and that has expanded so we have YKDFN, other orders of government, the utility companies, RCMP, ECC. That’s the bigger lens on how we’re making sure the community overall is protected. Looking at what’s it going to take for people to be able to return: is it safe that there’s no wildfire threat, and is it safe for people to return to the community? ECC are the ones looking at the fire risk. The GNWT put the evacuation order into place and it would be the GNWT that would lift it. What we’re wrapping our heads around is what’s it going to look like when everybody comes back, and our re-entry plan has to align with what the GNWT is doing as well, because we’re not the boss of them when it comes to re-entry.
We’re looking at contractors, we’re looking at the services that need to be on the ground to enable everybody to come back. We have to bring back critical personnel. We’ve got to make sure that the health services are ready to go, we’ve got to make sure 911 is up and running. We’ve got to make sure that those essential, critical services are ready to go for everybody, not just for the skeleton crew that’s remained here in town. We’re going to need to make sure that electricity, water, fuel, sewer, garbage – all of those glamorous things that people don’t necessarily think about but are really important – are in place for everybody to be able to come back, and then we look at essential retail. We’ve got to make sure grocery stores, banks, gas stations are ready to roll.
Then we need to make sure some of the unique supports for some of our residents are in place, so we need to make sure our day shelters and sobering centres are staffed and ready to accept people when they come back. When we have all of those pieces in place, that will involve recalling some critical staff. The grocery stores, right now, are operating on an absolutely skeleton crew – they’re going to need people to come back to stock the shelves and do all of that work.
So we need to identify and prioritize those people, and we know that’s really hard, because “I’m sitting with my two kids and three dogs in a hotel room or an evacuation centre someplace, I want to get home, and I don’t want to worry so much about those services.” But we need to make sure that we get the baseline services back up and running so we can welcome everybody back.
Rebecca Alty: We don’t know the threat of the fire: if it makes it here, what damage it does. Heaven forbid the fire makes it here and takes out the water treatment plant or it takes out the hospital, that would be a huge loss in assets. We’re hoping for minimal impact, it could have the worst.
The one thing I would say is we haven’t lost power during the time residents have been away. Some folks have been worried: “Hey, did power go out for a long time? Did I lose all the stuff in my fridge?” And the answer is no. We haven’t lost power yet. So everybody’s food is now a week old but it hasn’t been impacted by power outages.
You mentioned examples of second-stage “critical” personnel who will need to head back first. Is there a definitive list? When might people expect to see the list, to be able to plan regarding whether to expect to be on it?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: There is a lot of work under way to pull that together. We want to be able to lay out what that roadmap looks like. We may not yet be able to assign a date to the roadmap, but we want to say OK, it should take us 24 hours to get these people back and they’re going to be priority one. And then it’s going to take us 48 hours to get this portion done. And then it’s going to take us another 24 to do whatever the next portion looks like.
In a lot of ways we are dependent on the GNWT reversing what they did under incredible duress in 48 hours to get people out of the territory, either by flights or by car. So we want to work backwards from that. We want to outline what those timelines look like so that there will be a map that people can see. When we’re able to assign actual dates to it, we would love to be able to do that. There’s a lot more detail than what I’ve gone through here, a lot of thinking on it, and a lot of work to coordinate what we’re doing with the GNWT, military and other partners.
Will you publish this plan?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: Yes. We want to be able to have something that looks like “here’s what the steps will be” without having a date on it. We’re hoping to do that. The team is making sure every stone is picked up and turned over before we’re able to document what that looks like and put it out, but that’s definitely our intention, that people will see it so they have a sense of “OK, as much as I want to go back tomorrow, I know it’s going to take this-many days before I can start to drive back, or before I get in the queue to get on a plane to come back.”
When do you hope to publish the plan?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: We are hoping very soon. We’re building it as we fly with lots of different perspectives, and the GNWT has a number of pieces of the puzzle that we need to make sure they’re aligned with what we’re doing. I wish I could give you a finite timeframe on this. We’re going to get it out as soon as we can, because we understand people need to digest what the steps are before we actually assign dates.
What sort of time lag exists between the GNWT telling the city “you’re good to go” and then the city being able to execute on the plan to a point where people can come back? How many days do you imagine the city needs to do that?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: The city and the GNWT – that’s really important to say that, because they are clearly the ones that are the leads on re-entry from other places. This is an estimate and it’s not 100-percent certain: we’re looking at approximately five days.
Rebecca Alty: From the first crews back to, five days later, the full population can be back.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett:Starting to come back, because people will come back in phases.
Rebecca Alty: Yeah, a phased re-entry will happen.
Talk to me about the phased re-entry, what phases?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: We definitely want to start with people that are restoring operations, and then we want residents to come back and have the supports that they need. Some people will say: “You know what? The grocery store’s open and the gas station’s open, I will be fine. My family will be fine.” Other people are going to need a little bit more – hospital patients are going to need to wait until we’ve got the hospital up and running, vulnerable persons are going to need to make sure they are welcomed and well situated when they return, that they’ve got all the supports they need.
So not assigning residents to different phases?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: I wouldn’t go there myself right now, I think that’s part of the detail to be worked out. Certainly with the air re-entry, that’s going to be something that the GNWT will be coordinating and organizing. I look to them.
With people that are driving back, they’re doing a bunch of planning right now to see about supports that can be there on the way. People driving have a bit more latitude in terms of how they can plan to return, but there have to be some of those supports once people cross the boundary for fuel and other things. So we’ll have to be organized.
What, in the ideal circumstances, is the earliest available date at which the city expects it might be in a position to trigger the plan?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: I struggle with that. The weather and fire don’t have a calendar, I wish they did.
Rebecca Alty: As much as everybody thought “sunny and blue skies yesterday,” that’s actually not good for fire, that’s drying the forest out. So we’ve got hot weather. We’ve got the sun, add some wind into the mix and there’s the possibility of flare-ups and possible crown firing. So it’s tough to say.
It sounds like that earliest available date is a conversation you have not really started to have yet.
Rebecca Alty: We continue to talk to the NWT Fire daily, multiple times a day. But NWT Fire doesn’t have the “we think by August 30 the fire will be under control, therefore you could start August 30.” They’re not at that level yet. From NWT Fire’s perspective, the fire is still a threat and there’s not a date that it won’t be a threat, yet.
What are the biggest challenges remaining in getting this plan finalized?
Sheila Bassi-Kellett: Every time we walk through the plan, there is another, “Hey, what about this?” There are a lot of details to work out.
I don’t mean to sound flippant but we remember vividly that during Covid, getting everyone locked down was much easier than reopening facilities. Certainly, from a city perspective, sending everyone home – shutting facilities – was much easier than what we needed to do to get everything back up and operational. So re-entry does take a lot of time. I mean, it was unbelievable the way the evacuation happened under duress. There may have been some fubars along the way but ultimately people got out, which was fantastic. Now we need to really think through all the logistics and all the points of this, to make sure people can be safe when they return.
That’s the bottom line, right? That it’s safe for residents to come back.
Rebecca Alty: We’ve had a few folks say, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have to be perfect, I’ll come back and I’ll be self-sufficient.” It’s like, yes, to a point. However, the city still needs to be able to provide you clean drinking water and sewage pickup, for example. There are a few core things that, really, we can’t just say “come back to Yellowknife.” Stay tuned, but step one is for the fire to no longer be a threat to Yellowknife.