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Mayor disputes minister’s account of why Yellowknife evacuated

Cars leave Yellowknife for safety on August 16, 2023. Photo: Samantha Stuart
Cars leave Yellowknife for safety on August 16, 2023. Photo: Samantha Stuart

Yellowknife’s mayor says an NWT minister’s description of why the city was evacuated by road and air, abandoning an earlier plan to shelter within the community, is “not the whole picture.”

Communities minister Shane Thompson told the CBC a full evacuation was triggered on August 16 because too few territorial staff were available to help run a reception centre at the city’s multiplex.

Under the city’s initial plan, residents would have been moved from wildfire-affected areas of Yellowknife to the multiplex or other safe zones.

In a Wednesday interview, Thompson told CBC North’s The Trailbreaker that there would have been too few GNWT staff to have “the evacuation centres stood up, because our health and social services department was leaving,” an apparent reference to employees leaving the city before an evacuation order had been called.

“They asked us what we were going to do – how we could work together, collaboratively, to get the residents out of there,” Thompson said of the city.

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“So we set up an evacuation plan that, within basically 60 hours, we would like to get everything done, because we knew the fire was going to hit on that Saturday and it was going to close the roads. All the indications [were that fires west and north of Yellowknife] were going to join together, which would close the highway, would also cause the airport to be unable to transfer people out. So at that time, we made the decision that we need to evacuate.”

Thompson – who has not yet been made available for interview by Cabin Radio, but is scheduled to take part in interviews next week – said governments ultimately “got lucky” and had a long-enough window, thanks to the weather and fire crews’ efforts, to get everyone out.

From left: NWT MP Michael McLeod, federal emergency preparedness minister Harjit Sajjan and NWT communities minister Shane Thompson
From left: NWT MP Michael McLeod, federal emergency preparedness minister Harjit Sajjan and NWT communities minister Shane Thompson in Yellowknife earlier this month. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty shakes hands with Chief Warrant Officer Steve Chagnon of 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment on August 23, as military personnel worked to help protect the city. Master Corporal Alana Morin/Joint Task Force North

In a Friday interview with Cabin Radio, Mayor Rebecca Alty said Thompson’s account did not match her recollection of what took place.

“I think it’s bits of it but not the whole picture,” Alty said of the minister’s version of events.

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“To be fair,” she added, “when you are doing live interviews, sometimes you say X, Y and Z and you forget to mention A, B and C.”

Asked what Thompson had forgotten, Alty made clear that to her, the main driver of Yellowknife’s road and air evacuation was advice from the NWT’s wildfire agency that led the GNWT to conclude residents needed to get out.

“That was what the territorial government said to us,” she said, “that based on the advice of ECC and the threat of the fire – because it would be reaching our boundary by the coming weekend – that the territorial government would be doing a full community evacuation order.”

Had ECC (the territorial Department of Environment and Climate Change, which includes NWT Fire) not made such a pronouncement, Alty said, she would have felt confident that enough staff existed to operate the city’s shelter-in-community plan.

She noted that an evacuation centre was set up in the multiplex anyway and had sufficient staff to operate, as far as she was aware, until it closed later in the week through lack of use.

While the CBC quoted a Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson as saying the territory’s health authority was struggling to find the capacity to run shelter-in-community supports in Yellowknife, Alty said the GNWT had told her it would “look beyond” Health and Social Services to other departments and provide assistance.

City council will consider on Monday a motion to launch a full review of the evacuation, known as an after-action assessment.

In summary, that assessment is expected to consider what governments had anticipated would happen, what actually happened, what went well, and what could be improved.

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The city says it expects the GNWT to carry out a separate, NWT-wide after-action assessment of its own.

A third party would provide Yellowknife’s review if council approves the plan as presented by staff. No budget or timeline for the assessment were included in a briefing note ahead of Monday’s meeting.

Correction: September 22, 2023 – 16:12 MT. This article originally misstated the date of Yellowknife’s evacuation order. It was issued on August 16, not August 13.