At the time, an evacuation alert was in place only for three areas on the western edge of Yellowknife.
Then, late on August 16, all residents in the city – and in Ndılǫ, Dettah and along the Ingraham Trail – were told to flee by noon on August 18, with little explanation of what had changed over the past 24 hours.
Minister responsible Shane Thompson last week told the CBC the evacuation was ordered because there weren’t enough territorial health and social services staff to run an evacuation centre in the city. That centre would be needed for the city’s shelter-in-community plan to stand a chance of working.
However, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty subsequently told Cabin Radio Thompson had omitted key elements. Alty said the evacuation was ordered largely because of territorial wildfire officials’ advice regarding the fire threat to the city.
On Wednesday this week, Thompson clarified to Cabin Radio – and in the NWT legislature – that a combination of factors triggered the evacuation order.
“The conversation, what was said, was largely irrelevant because of how quickly the situation changed from Sunday to Tuesday, the day before the evacuation,” he told Cabin Radio.
“I’m not putting the blame game on anybody. Everybody was right, but at the end of the day we had to make a decision for people’s safety.”
Factors affecting the decision included “aggressive and unpredictable wildfire behaviour” near Yellowknife, Thompson said, leading to concern that Highway 3 and the city’s airport could be affected, potentially cutting off escape routes. He added that massive fire breaks in Yellowknife had not yet been constructed.
Thompson said the fire season had been “unpredictable” as, just days before, a separate wildfire forced five communities to evacuate with little notice, unexpectedly devastated Enterprise in a matter of hours, and damaged a fibre line and other critical infrastructure.
Assessing Yellowknife’s situation days later, Thompson said, officials could see a window of 48 hours in which everyone could get out safely, before the wildfire was expected to reach the outskirts of the city.
“If you look at what happened in Hay River, they didn’t have 48 hours. They would’ve loved to have 48 hours. We had 12 accidents on the way going out,” he said.
But Thompson maintained that sheltering in the city was not a viable option by the time the evacuation was declared.
He reiterated that healthcare staff who might have been needed to staff evacuation centres were focused on patients at the hospital and Stanton Legacy facility, including more than 60 long-term care and supportive living residents who had been evacuated to Yellowknife from Hay River and Fort Smith.
“At the end of the day, the right decision was made – and given the same information, I would make the same call every day,” he said.
City versus GNWT responsibilities
Municipal governments are ordinarily responsible for issuing evacuation orders for their residents. The territorial government, however, ordered Yellowknife and surrounding areas to evacuate, with the agreement of the city, as the NWT was under a territory-wide state of emergency at the time.
Thompson said the state of emergency was called as five other communities were already evacuated and more “tools” were needed for emergency response, including aircraft.
The city has said it had an evacuation framework and a plan for sheltering in Yellowknife, but not a more detailed “hazard-specific” plan for a city-wide evacuation. The municipal government did not make a formal request to the territorial government for assistance with a potential city-wide evacuation until August 15, but Mayor Alty said municipal staff had been working with the territory on emergency management well before then.
Even if the city had a plan in place, Alty said, Yellowknife still would have needed the territory’s help to arrange flights and reception centres down south.
The city plans to hire a third party to review its response to the 2023 wildfire season, including how the evacuation was planned and managed, to better prepare for future emergencies. Alty said consulting residents as part of that review process will be part of rebuilding any public trust that may have been lost.
Thompson said the NWT government plans a similar independent review, called an after-action assessment, into how it handled wildfire-related emergencies across the territory this year.
Internally, the minister said, departments have already begun reviewing this year’s wildfire season to better prepare for next year. He said improvements will be made to the territory’s emergency plan, NWT government coordination, community training, and capacity for emergency response and evacuations across communities.
“There’s lots of work that needs to be done,” he said. “We’re not waiting for recommendations from the after-action review.”
Thompson said that will continue at all levels of government even with the impending territorial election and a new set of MLAs coming into power.
The minister said he respects the opinion of residents who may have lost trust in the territorial government through the course of recent evacuations, but said he had also heard from people thankful for the territory’s response.
“Could we have done a better job in getting the information out there? Yeah,” he acknowledged.
“But you’ve got to remember we’re dealing with a crisis, we’re dealing with a disaster. And we have to make decisions as quickly as we can, based on the information we have.”