The city of Yellowknife did not have a concrete plan for a large-scale evacuation of the Northwest capital before being forced to put it into action last month.
“We were absolutely ready with our shelter in place plan. The entire concept of evacuating the entire City of Yellowknife is not something that is contemplated in our emergency planning, nor in the GNWT plans. [Government of Northwest Territories]either,” City Manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett acknowledged at a news conference Monday.
The city’s multi-week evacuation order will officially be lifted Wednesday afternoon, meaning some 22,000 people will return home from Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia, the Yukon and elsewhere.
In the weeks and days before the territory ordered the evacuation of Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, Dettah and Ingraham Trail on August 18, city officials said that if a wildfire threatened Yellowknife, the plan was to move people from the highest-risk sections of the city to other areas of the city, with the multiplex serving as evacuation center for the displaced.
This makes little sense to Alain Normand, a professor of emergency management communication at York University. He said a shelter-in-place plan wouldn’t work in the event of a wildfire.
“You keep them in the area where the fire is,” he said, adding that the city’s initial plan did not consider deteriorating air quality.
Normand, who followed the Yellowknife evacuation on the news, also said that based on Yellowknife’s geography and the increasing intensity of the wildfires, it was almost a given that Yellowknife would one day be threatened by a full-scale fire.
He said that a town as remote as Yellowknife should have had a plan in place, and that plan should have been made public.
Sukhmanpreet Dhindsa, a Yellowknife resident, said that when the city’s evacuation alert was issued on August 15, only for the western parts of the city, he had lost all faith that local officials were in control of the situation. The next day the order to evacuate the entire city was announced.
“When the evacuation took place, it was very obvious that they didn’t have a plan,” Dhindsa said.
“In the future, I will have no confidence in the city or the [N.W.T. government] with any type of evacuation or emergency management”.
“So many different variables,” said the mayor
In it spring and before this summerYellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the city’s emergency plan did not go into detail because there were “many different scenarios” that could affect an emergency response.
“There are so many different variables that come into play,” he said in a previous interview with Breaking:. “It’s about having an evacuation framework and working around it.”
Alty said in a brief email to Breaking: on September 1 that he would not be available for an interview on evacuation strategy until after the city’s governance and priorities committee meeting during the week of September 25.
He also said the city needs to do a “complete review of everything” related to the evacuation of the city.
The city did not respond directly when asked about criticism of its planning for a large-scale evacuation. But spokeswoman Sarah Sibley said in an email Tuesday that “the city has an emergency plan that includes an emergency evacuation framework.”
However, when the city first published an overview of the framework on July 26, it specified that the framework was not the same as an evacuation plan. The city said at the time that no plan had been finalized.
Sibley wrote that the city is responsible for emergency planning and response “and works closely with the Northwest Territories Government in planning and managing an emergency.”
“The Northwest Territories Emergency Plan is clear: when local authorities need help, they turn to the GNWT; and when the GNWT needs help, they turn to Canada,” he wrote.
Sibley said the city was unable to provide a more detailed response because staff were busy preparing for the return of residents on Wednesday, when the evacuation order is lifted.
Sophia Craig-Massey is a Professional Disaster Specialist in Emergency Management who teaches Disaster Management at York University. She wasn’t surprised that Yellowknife had no plan for a full-scale evacuation.
He said that emergency planning needs to be flexible, as an emergency situation can change quickly. That’s why specific details probably weren’t provided in advance of the evacuation order, she said.
“There is no uniform approach to disaster emergency management,” he said.
However, Craig-Massey said that as more disasters occur in Canada, it is becoming more common for emergency planners and municipalities to develop “hazard-specific plans.”
‘We want to know what the real plan is for people’
On July 26, two days after the community of Behchokǫ, NWT, was evacuated under threat of the same wildfire that later forced the evacuation of Yellowknife, and after mounting pressure from residents and the media communication, the city issued a link to a evacuation frame. That document also included some specific details.
The six-page framework discusses the process for declaring an evacuation, the different types of evacuations, and a flowchart that includes steps such as “understand the threat” and “determine the area of risk.”
It does not detail where evacuees could go or how fleeing residents could find necessary resources, such as gas and toilets, along the way.
Dhindsa was not impressed.
“[The framework] It is like who is going to make decisions. We don’t care who is going to make decisions as part of their emergency plan,” Dhindsa said.
“We want to know what the real plan is, on the ground, for the people.”
In mid-August, as the threat of wildfires in Yellowknife increased, many city residents called for a comprehensive plan for a citywide evacuation. Instead, the city told residents that if the case came, they would be given warning.
They were not.
No citywide evacuation alert had been issued before. they told everyone to leave.
NWT Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs Shane Thompson, who ultimately ordered the evacuation of Yellowknife, declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman said Thompson “is still focused on getting through the fires and evacuations” and will be at Enterprise, Hay River and Fort Smith, NWT, for the next two days.
A “complete failure”, says an expert
The evacuation order it arrived suddenly on August 16, around 7:40 pm, and provided no information on where the evacuees were to go.
“For me, making the decision not to evacuate in the first place and then changing it is the worst thing to do,” said Alain Normand, an expert in emergency management at the University of York.
The order was not even issued by the city itself. It was pronounced by Thompson, the minister of the territorial government, who hours before had officially taken charge of the emergency response.
NWT officials said it would be a phased evacuation, but no details on the phases were initially provided. Meanwhile, thousands of residents rushed to the only road out of the city and left the city overnight.
Normand said a phased approach could have been used in this case, if the city had a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood evacuation plan that the community was aware of before the announcement was made.
Normand said that based on the city’s population, it is likely that 6,000 cars were on the road outside the city that first night after the order was announced.
“They were mixed messages… with no specific instructions on where to go, how to get there and no resources to get there,” he said.
Those who did fly had it even worse, with many Hours of waiting in lines for evacuation flights..
Some might argue that the Yellowknife evacuation was a success: the vast majority of residents left the city safely, and no unexpected deaths or injuries were reported.
But for Normand, the evacuation was a “complete failure”. He said the city can still redeem itself by how it handles re-entry on Wednesday.
Although Normand’s vision for a successful re-entry seems significantly different from what the city announced on September 1.
“You can’t just say, ‘Okay, people, you can come back,'” he said.
Normand said that people should return neighborhood by neighborhood.
“At this point, in my opinion, they failed… They didn’t do a very good job with the evacuation. How will they do with the re-entry? We’ll see.”