Wildfires

If a wildfire comes: Hay River evacuates, YK stays in place


What happens in your NWT community if a wildfire threatens?

At the time of writing, it’s not an immediate concern – but residents have written to Cabin Radio with questions following the evacuation of High Level, in northern Alberta, earlier this summer.

Residents of High Level were displaced for almost two weeks by a nearby wildfire.

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What happens to your community in the NWT, if a similar situation occurs, depends on where you live.

Some southern NWT communities have well-defined evacuation plans, with wildfires clearly stated as the threat expected to trigger them.

Hay River published an updated draft of its evacuation plan this month. The document explains how residents would first be expected to evacuate by road to Yellowknife or, if that is not possible, how an evacuation by air would be arranged.

The plan walks staff, and residents, through all of the alert stages leading up to a full-scale evacuation, and exactly how each stage should be managed and communicated – including the safe return of residents once the danger has passed.

Hay River’s plan includes maps showing where residents can register during an evacuation and an example registration form, plus sets of questions and answers to help residents at each stage of such a crisis.

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YK road evacuation ‘not safe’

The City of Yellowknife, by contrast, does not expect to evacuate residents in any circumstances.

The City’s newest emergency plan, current as of May 2019, lists steps to take if another community – like Hay River – is evacuated to Yellowknife.

Yellowknifers themselves evacuating elsewhere, however, is not contemplated anywhere in the document.

This has been the case for several years, at least. In the especially severe 2014 wildfire season, which featured fires fewer than 20 kilometres from the city limits, Yellowknife residents were advised no evacuation would take place.

In a Q&A within the emergency preparedness section of its website, the City explains its strategy – and what would happen in the event of a wildfire threat.

“The City of Yellowknife will utilize a ‘stay-in-place’ evacuation in the event of an emergency, whether power outage in the winter or forest fires in the summer,” the City’s website states.

“During the 2014 and 2015 forest fire seasons in the Northwest Territories, the highway to southern Canada was often closed due to wildland fires. Yellowknife is 300 km to the community of Fort Providence and 440 km to Enterprise. Fuel supplies at both locations could not handle the amount of potential evacuation traffic, and long stretches of highway may not be safe for travel in the event of mechanical failures or [lack of] fuel.

“Therefore, the City would evacuate specific neighbourhoods affected by the emergency to other sections of the city (City facilities, school gymnasium) so that emergency crews can deal with the emergency at hand in specific locations in Yellowknife.”

Airlift only ‘in dire circumstances’

There are only certain directions from which a wildfire threat to Yellowknife is considered a realistic possibility.

Great Slave Lake’s presence means wildfire danger from the east is essentially zero, and the threat from the south is limited – there isn’t much forest until you reach the lake, and Con Mine’s tailings areas act as a form of fire break.

To the north of the city, the tailings ponds of Giant Mine provide a similar level of protection. The airport to the west is another obstacle that would, at the very least, slow a fire’s progress – allowing crews to prepare additional fire breaks or take other necessary measures.

As a fire approached, residents of the closest neighbourhoods would be moved to other areas of Yellowknife, allowing crews to repel the fire.

“No community is immune,” the City of Yellowknife’s former public safety director, Dennis Marchiori, told the CBC in 2016.

“If the fire was coming in to the south and affecting a neighbourhood, we would evacuate them and move them to a spot safer in the city – our reception areas like the Multiplex, or the schools,” said Marchiori.

“If it got to the point where it was coming into the town, and for whatever reason we were not able to slow it down … we would go the Government of the Northwest Territories, and they would go to the federal government [for additional resources].”

The City’s emergency plan has not changed significantly in the three years since that interview. Marchiori, at the time, suggested a wildfire incursion to the point of requiring federal intervention was considered a remote possibility.

The City’s website says an airlift would be an option “only in the most dire of circumstances.”

Residents are advised to be ready to sustain themselves for 72 hours, in the event of any emergency, while City Hall ramps up its response.

The existence, public availability, and detail of emergency plans – and evacuation plans – varies from community to community.

Below, find a selection of emergency plans and evacuation plans that can be viewed online.

  • Fort Liard has an emergency response plan with references to steps in the event of an evacuation
  • Fort Simpson, like Hay River, has an evacuation plan with detailed checklists, instructions, and template documents
  • Fort Smith has a basic evacuation plan
  • Hay River (as discussed above)
  • Inuvik lists, but does not publicly share, an evacuation plan as part of its broader emergency response plan
  • Yellowknife (emergency plan that makes no mention of evacuation, but a Q&A on the City’s website states evacuation is not considered an option)

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