Mayor of Yellowknife, Rebecca Alty speaks with soldiers on August 23, 2023. Photo: Canadian Armed Forces
As Yellowknife plans a review of its response to the 2023 wildfire season, Mayor Rebecca Alty says she’s looking forward to the recommendations that will come from it.
During a meeting on Monday, Alty and city councillors were supportive of hiring a third party to complete what’s known as an after-action assessment, with the aim of helping the municipality better respond to future emergencies.
“It’s a great opportunity to find out what should have happened, what did happen … what did work and what didn’t work, and recommendations on ways we can improve,” the mayor told Cabin Radio, adding she had read similar assessments of wildfire response in Fort McMurray and the Lesser Slave Lake region of Alberta.
Alty said once the assessment for Yellowknife is completed, the city will be responsible for the “heavy lifting of implementing” its recommendations. She said she has already spoken to federal ministers about the need for funding to complete the assessment and adequately respond to it.
“It’s important that we’re able to effectively prepare in the future and that can’t happen without investments,” she said.
The city’s current budget does not account for the assessment, which city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett estimates will cost around $100,000 to $150,000. The city is hoping that will be covered by disaster assistance funding from the territorial or Canadian governments.
Alty said the city plans to hire an independent consultant to complete the assessment, who will present the findings and recommendations at a public meeting to councillors. She said she believes that will be an effective process, similar to how audits are completed and presented to the city.
“It will take time to rebuild trust, if anybody has lost trust,” she said. “It is something that we’re going to have to work hard to repair.”
Alty said that will include having public engagement as part of the assessment process, communicating with residents, and being open and accessible to hear their questions and concerns.
The current recommended scope of the assessment includes 20 different areas for review. City staff are set to make minor changes in response to feedback from councillors, such as the inclusion of public consultation. Councillors are set to again discuss the proposed assessment at a meeting on October 10.
Alty said the review will look at the “full gamut of issues in emergency management, preparedness, response and recovery,” including recommendations for a community-based evacuation plan.
Already the mayor said she has been “jotting down notes” about things she hopes to discuss with the consultants, including what worked and areas where she believes the city could learn more.
She said the city declaring a local state of emergency was an example of something that worked well, as it helped to increase the number of contractors working on fire breaks in the municipality from four to 20. She said she’d like to learn more about the difference between evacuation orders issued by the territory versus local authorities, like the city, and how that could impact things like healthcare.
“Local authority evacuation orders aren’t enforceable,” she said, explaining that an evacuation order issued by a municipality can’t result in things like checkpoints keeping people out, whereas a territorially issued evacuation order can.
“That has an impact on whether people leave the community and stay out of the community,” said Alty of an order’s enforceability.
Unusually, the order to evacuate Yellowknife came from the GNWT, not the city, though the city agreed with that step. The territory issued the evacuation order for Yellowknife and surrounding areas as the NWT was under a territory-wide state of emergency. Even had the city declared the evacuation order, Alty said the territory would have still been responsible for arranging flights and evacuation centres.
While residents have sometimes witnessed friction and disagreements between the city and NWT government this wildfire season, Alty said she believes the relationship between the governments has improved.
“There was an opportunity to meet some new GNWT employees and work together through the emergency,” she said.
With a territorial election on the horizon, Alty said she hopes to see support for municipal governments from the newly elected MLAs.
“Funding is important,” she said, calling municipalities “the poorest level of government.” She said the territory needs to ensure “there is funding to do this emergency management and preparedness.”