Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty meets with Canadian Armed Forces soldiers on August 23, 2023. Photo: Master Corporal Alana Morin/Joint Task Force North
Yellowknife mayor says a full review will examine the city’s evacuation and the planning surrounding it.
As residents come home following three weeks away, Rebecca Alty said staff had already reached out to other Canadian communities with similar experience – like Fort McMurray and Slave Lake – to copy the reviews they carried out.
That move comes amid some criticism of an apparent absence of a plan that contemplated fully evacuating the Yellowknife area by road and air.
Three people with direct knowledge of territorial and municipal emergency planning have told Cabin Radio no detailed plan for evacuating the city has, to their knowledge, ever existed.
Alty said no “cookie-cutter” plan could have accounted for the entirety of the circumstances facing the city and territory last month, when nine communities were issued evacuation orders in the space of a week.
But she acknowledged that a more comprehensive “hazard-specific plan” for a full evacuation was clearly needed, and said the city now had the benefit of reams of documentation from Canada Task Force 2, a team of disaster response specialists that has been helping the city since its evacuation was declared.
The mayor said the launch of a review into the evacuation is set to be discussed by council on September 25.
Who pays for the multi-million-dollar fire breaks hurriedly constructed outside Yellowknife is still to be determined, Alty said, emphasizing her belief that municipalities are critically under-funded for such protective work and must make impossible choices between wildfire preparation and the likes of water and sewer maintenance.
To residents considering leaving the NWT because of the recent upheaval and perceived threat, she said: “Look at what your quality of life is in Yellowknife – and does it still remain?
“I think it’s a great community. It’s got a lot of events and activities, and folks did pull together. Evacuees were hosting barbecues for evacuees in Edmonton and stuff like that. But hey, if you’ve all of a sudden checked out Grande Prairie and that feels like a better fit for you, that’s a better fit for you.
“I think Yellowknife still has a lot to offer, pre and post-fire.”
Below, read a full transcript of the interview. You can also listen to the audio.
This interview was broadcast live on September 7, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Note that the mayor originally referred to “hazard identification plans” but later clarified that the term she had meant was “hazard-specific plans.” We have amended this in the transcript to avoid even more confusion about terminology.
Ollie Williams: How are you feeling about yesterday?
Rebecca Alty: It went pretty smooth. I was a little worried, the day before, with the power outage in Fort Prov. And I’m like, “What could be thrown during the welcome back?” From what I’ve seen, highway conditions were good. Flights still need some work, I would say, but they all came in. I know that a lot of people are still waiting for when their flight will be, because they’ve pre-registered and stuff. I’m hoping that all gets sorted out today. Stuff’s getting back up and running. So, good to see.
Talk me through your Wednesday. Where were you yesterday? What were you able to keep an eye on?
Yesterday, I did the greetings for the first four flights. It was nice to see some folks getting some hugs, a lot of folks were tired and just wanted to get to their bed– a nice shower and to sleep in your bed, I’m sure you also appreciated that yesterday. And then media interviews, of course.
How are things at the airport? A lot has to happen there. I know there were people volunteering to help drive people home, things like that. How was that system working?
It actually worked really well. I was a little worried that we actually had too many people and that maybe people weren’t going to come back later on to help out. It was really smooth. It was great to see the number of people that came out and the St John’s Ambulance was there to help anybody who had accessibility needs to get home.
Are you getting the sense that flights are coming back full?
Yesterday was a mix of commercial and charters. The first commercial I think had three people on it. I think the commercial will fill up over the next couple of days. I know somebody got a notice that they could get on the free charter, but they had to be at the hotel this morning in Calgary at 5am. They were like, “I’ll pay $150 and go later in the day.”
But that causes a situation, doesn’t it? Because how is the GNWT going to know that person has decided to go and get a commercial flight instead? And does that mean there’s now an empty seat on a re-entry flight?
Exactly, yeah, so if you’re doing that, make sure you’re calling to cancel. It was never going to be a smooth process. Logistics are tough when you’re dealing with, you know, 20,000 people. There were a few seats empty yesterday – did someone miss their flight? Did someone just not want to show up because it was too early? Tough to say. I think over the next couple days, they’ll probably get a better idea on why people aren’t showing up and how to improve that.
Do you imagine it’ll go on past Sunday at this point, these flights to get people home?
It’ll be tough to say. I wouldn’t say that the government is going to drag it out forever, you know. But then, I saw yesterday that 8pm is the deadline for Calgary by which you’ve got to register. For the unhoused population, I don’t think you can say 8pm is the deadline. “Sorry, too bad. So sad. You missed your opportunity. We’re not bringing you home to Yellowknife.” I think there will be some flexibility. You’ve got to try to get as many people as possible to pre-register and get those flights moving.
Do you have any sense yet of how many of your unhoused population are coming back or have made it back?
Not yet, no. The majority ended up in Calgary. From talking to Calgary, a lot of people are now in the shelter system there. How do we go about… is it going to the shelters over the next couple of weeks? That was where the mayor of Calgary and I were calling for more social supports, because you basically need double the workforce – you’re going to need the workforce to come back here to Yellowknife and set up the Salvation Army and the women’s society etc, but you also need people on the ground doing what they were doing. That’s where you need more, and we haven’t heard more are coming yet.
The other thing is that the local employees here know the unhoused of Yellowknife, so it’s not like somebody from Alberta could walk around and be like, “Are you from Yellowknife? Are you from Yellowknife?” Is there a way that there’s extra support in Yellowknife in October and some people from Yellowknife go down and and engage with the shelter systems there? I’m not involved in all the discussions happening in health and with the NGOs. But maybe that’s an option.
I just want to ask you at this juncture, how are you doing? Mental and physical health-wise, as the mayor right now?
It’s been a long, long journey. You’re just moving from one issue to the next. This was an intense three weeks. I haven’t had a day off since the Saturday before all the fires went wild. I’m going to try to take some time off and then come back and then we’ve got budget 2024. This fire was a very real issue for Yellowknife but we still have a housing issue, we still have not enough money for roads, water and sewer. For all those territorial candidates, you know, you’ve got some big shoes to step into.
You mentioned you had a day off on the Saturday before the Wednesday evacuation order. A couple of days before that evacuation order, I remember being in a press briefing where it was made clear that evacuating by road and air almost wasn’t an option. The city manager said something massive would have to happen. What was the tipping point? What happened?
I would say it was a low probability, but not a no probability. The way that the GNWT emergency plan works is it’s under the guidance of a subject-matter expert. For example, the fire would be ECC. For the pandemic, of course, it was the chief public health officer.
So we were continuing to engage with ECC ever since this fire began with Behchokǫ̀. When Behchokǫ̀ evacuated we were checking in all the time to be like, “Is Yellowknife at threat?” No, no, no. “OK. Are there actions we should be taking?” Before the August long weekend, we started reaching out to contractors to start working on these fire breaks.
The big wind of that Sunday, we continued to engage with ECC and they were like, “No, it appears to be held at this line that we have.” Once the fire went over that, it was still continuing to work with them, like, “No threat, no threat.” But come Wednesday, the forecast changed – or I shouldn’t say changed. Every day, the forecast provides a bit more visibility on the next day. So by Wednesday it was forecast that the fire would be here, at the boundary of the city, by the weekend. And so [ECC] recommended a full evacuation, because the highway was still accessible, so that was one option.
By Wednesday, the territorial government was now in a territorial emergency, which is where it became a territorial evacuation order as opposed to a local authority evacuation order.
The thing we’ll be doing after this is a full review – in Fort McMurray, it was KPMG that did it, so it’s pretty big firms that that do these reviews – and looking at the legislation, looking at our current plans. Because the challenge is: the city’s got an emergency plan, the territorial government has an emergency plan. Where one ends, the other begins. What I would like to see is a joint one, and to have the full from-start-to-finish process in it, not only for staff but also for the public, so they’ve got… people don’t care that “this is what the city does, and this is what the territorial government does.” Government is government is government. So having that one plan, I think, is important.
The other thing I want to see is two scenarios: how does it operate under a territorial emergency and how does it work under a local authority emergency? There are different roles and responsibilities in both cases. Like, a territorial evacuation order is enforceable. The local authority evacuation order is actually just a communications tool. We can’t even keep people out of the town if it’s a local one. So lots to review.
Had it still been a local emergency rather than a territorial one, would you have made the same call to get everyone to leave?
It’s based on the direction of ECC. The evacuation framework does say step one is moving [people from] the area of town that’s under threat to, for example, the multiplex. But if it is deemed a community risk, then it’s road and air. Once you get to the air, it’s the territorial government.
You said just now this wasn’t a no-probability scenario, it was a low-probability scenario, Given there was a probability it could occur, was it an error not to have a plan for that?
It still has, like, a plan that outlines roles and responsibilities.
But there wasn’t really… I mean, the city manager’s already said as much, there was not a plan in the same way that there was, for example, for sheltering in place.
No. So there are hazard-specific plans that would be like a more detailed plan, but the evacuation framework has, you know, “this is what happens for sheltering in place or for the full evacuation.” So we need a hazard-specific plan for a scenario of a full evacuation.
What difference would that have made? With hindsight, what do you wish you’d been able to reach and grab off the shelf? Because, clearly, a lot of stuff had to be made up on the fly.
It still isn’t a case of, like, a cookie-cutter “take this plan and implement it.” It still would have required the territorial government to get the flights, to get reception centres – and the fact that nine communities were being evacuated at the same time – so I think it would have just outlined… it would have been more about who’s around the table, and having those working relationships better, versus the plan itself, because it is still roles and responsibilities through our emergency plan, evacuation framework and the GNWT plan. It’s there. But now we have all these templates and documents from working with the Canada Task Force 2 team of: this is how your day should look during an emergency from a staff perspective, to make sure that all bases are getting covered.
Some residents felt they were evacuating with virtually zero plan above them. We’ve seen the CBC News article from a day or two ago that says there was there was no plan, essentially. You’re pushing back a little here and saying: There was at least a little bit of a plan and even if we’d had a more detailed plan, it couldn’t account for everything. And it certainly couldn’t account for the situation that the territory found itself in that week. I get the sense from you that you’re almost saying, “Well, how do you plan for that?” Is that fair?
No, no. So in that CBC article, they give that one guy lots of airtime and then they give that other professor, like, two seconds. And as she says, it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. I don’t know if it’s just the terminology – plan, frameworks, hazard-specific plans…
Nobody listening knows what any of those mean.
Exactly. So then we just lump it all as a plan but each of them is distinct, separate. So that hazard-specific plan – and the woman references it in that CBC article – communities need to have more of those. Through the review we’ll go through this to see how much more detail we need in the future, and then how to make it accessible in plain language for residents.
When will we know more about this review?
Our first Governance and Priorities Committee meeting is September 25. That’s the current forecast. So that’s the first item on the agenda. After an incident like this, you would have a review and so we’ve already reached out to Fort McMurray and Slave Lake, all those, they’ve got the terms of reference for what we would need for the review. We’ve actually already started asking them to send us their RFP for that so we can hit the ground running.
How worried are you – not just from the perspective of Yellowknife’s unhoused population but more generally, in terms of our population here – that some people choose to leave now?
Yeah, it’s a possibility. A natural disaster hit Yellowknife, hit nine communities in the Northwest Territories that one week. It also hit a number of communities down south and in the southern part of of the States. Whenever I’d be on the media, it was like the story before me would be… the first week it was Maui. The second week, it was West Kelowna. The third week, it was the hurricane in the southern part of the States. I don’t think we can run and find another community that’s immune to natural disasters. But, yes, you know, there’s a possibility that people choose not to come back.
What would your message be to people thinking about that?
I think it’s to look at what your quality of life is in Yellowknife – and does it still remain? I think it’s a great community. It’s got a lot of events and activities, and folks did pull together. Evacuees were hosting barbecues for evacuees in Edmonton and stuff like that. But hey, if you’ve all of a sudden checked out Grande Prairie and that feels like a better fit for you, that’s a better fit for you. I think Yellowknife still has a lot to offer, pre and post-fire.
There’ll be a lot of people listening who are still preparing their journeys back. Either they’re waiting for a flight or they’re just starting the drive back in. The city has a lot of messaging out there right now. What are the two or three most important things that you want people to know as they come back?
If you’re driving, it’s definitely drive to the conditions, make sure you’ve got your lights on. From what I hear it’s not smoky but, if it is smoky conditions, make sure you’ve got your lights on and drive slow. The thing if you do want to be prepared is to have some non-perishables in the vehicle with you so you don’t have to hit the grocery store right away, and your prescriptions or your meds if you can stop to a pharmacy and pick up that. Once you come back, we know that your fridge has been there for three weeks. You’ll probably want to throw some stuff out. We do have the solid waste facility that’s going to be open today all the way till Sunday, 11am till 4pm.
We didn’t have a power outage at all during this time, so your food in your freezer is fine, which is a big saving grace. In a lot of communities, you’ve got to throw out everything and start again. And just having patience at the storage, because all those employees also just went through this evacuation. So if we can be kind to one another.
You touched on this in passing, there’s a territorial election coming up. And much as I’m sat here grilling you from a municipal point of view, I’m interested in what you think territorially. What does the mayor of Yellowknife wish the territorial government would do differently in future?
Territorially and federally, we do need to look at how we can prepare our communities before a natural disaster, as well as during and then after. Leaving it just on the communities to do fire breaks? We did receive some funding from the federal government – it’s actually not enough to do all the fire breaks that we just did, but municipal governments are the poorest level of government so to be like, “it’s on you to do all of that pre-work to help protect your community” just isn’t realistic.
And then during the evacuation, I think, definitely those joint plans but working with other governments like the Government of Alberta. If Yellowknife has to evacuate again, making sure we’ve got those good relationships with Alberta and their reception centres. What supports are offered and what do northerners need?
And businesses: if I look at the wage subsidy program during Covid, that helped businesses continue to pay employees and that would have been beneficial during this time. We’re going to need a lot of financial support as well as what people might think of as light and fuzzy, but funding for community events. It’s actually really important for people’s mental health – and it’s the thing that generally gets cut first. But it’s definitely a need for those mental health and community events.
If Yellowknife had had a little more funding a little earlier on for things like fire breaks, and Yellowknife had done more over the past couple of years to work on things like that – because as we know, not a lot really happened here over the past couple of years – do you think authorities would have had more confidence in saying, actually, everyone can stay? You can shelter in place, because there are better defences here?
Well, I would push back that we haven’t been doing stuff because we have, but with the budget we have, it’s not enough.
You told me a month ago that we hadn’t really done anything for two years.
For last year, yeah. This year’s work would have happened… but, anyways, it’s only $100,000 that we’re allocating in our budget to do stuff like firesmarting, which is different than fire breaks. Fire breaks is a multi-million-dollar need and when we’re underfunded from a water, sewer, garbage perspective, adding on the fire breaks? We’re not making much progress or any dents in our fire plan. I’m interested in if we can have funding, too to update all of our community fire plans. The fire breaks that Yellowknife has, Hay River, Fort Smith – we’ve probably tackled most of the recommendations that were put in 2019. And we are due, now. It’s almost five years later. To update those and see what else is needed would be good.
Looking at the same question another way: Now that we have the fire defences that have been built over the past few weeks – not to mention the fact that now a large amount of the fuel has burned near the city – do you feel more confident that this isn’t something Yellowknifers are going to have to confront again, at least for the short to medium term?
Yeah, it is. It was 1998, 2014 and 2023. And so the challenge is, the further we get away from it, the less people want their taxes spent on it. That’s the challenge. That’s when you start getting into the trade-offs of: do we do the water and sewer that’s needed right now? Or do we invest in this pre-planning for the future? There are still 15 kilometres of forest between us and the burnt zone but our defence systems are really strong and we’ve got to maintain them going forward. Like, I know folks will be probably using them as recreation, but we need to make sure that they’re clear going forward.
Who’s paying for them?
We all will be working through… we’ve got to sort out through the disaster assistance funding. We’ve got to still work on the final total for that. It’s a big exercise to come. But we do have some folks who’ve had experience getting funding from the federal government through the disaster assistance funding. They’re coaching us through the process to be successful.