Yellowknife never had a plan for a city-wide evacuation | CBC News

The City of Yellowknife did not have a concrete plan for a full-scale evacuation of the N.W.T. capital before it was forced to put one into action last month.

“We were absolutely ready with our shelter-in-place plan. The whole concept of evacuating the entire city of Yellowknife is not something that’s contemplated in our emergency planning, nor actually in the GNWT’s [Government of Northwest Territories], either,” acknowledged city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett, in a news conference on Monday.

The city’s weeks-long evacuation order will be officially lifted on Wednesday afternoon, meaning about 22,000 people will be making their way back home from Alberta, Manitoba, B.C., the Yukon and elsewhere. 

In the weeks and days before the territory ordered the evacuation of Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, Dettah and the Ingraham Trail on Aug. 18, city officials said that if a wildfire threatened Yellowknife, the plan was to move people from the most at-risk sections of the city to other areas of the city, with the multiplex serving as an evacuation centre for those displaced.

WATCH | N.W.T. evacuees say they’re happy to finally head home: 

Yellowknife residents prepare to head home

With the evacuation order for Yellowknife and two surrounding areas set to lift at noon on Wednesday, residents are preparing to break camp and head north. Service stations along the route prepare for the thousands of vehicles about to pass through.

That makes little sense to Alain Normand, who teaches emergency management communication at York University. He said a shelter-in-place plan wouldn’t work in the case of a wildfire. 

“You’re keeping them in the zone where the fire is,” he said, adding that the city’s initial plan didn’t consider deteriorating air quality. 

Normand, who followed Yellowknife’s evacuation in the news, also said that based on Yellowknife’s geography and the growing intensity of wildfires, it was almost a given that Yellowknife would one day be threatened by a large-scale fire.

He said a city as remote as Yellowknife should have had a plan in place, and that plan should have been made public. 

Yellowknife resident Sukhmanpreet Dhindsa said that by the time the city’s evacuation alert went out on Aug. 15, for only the western parts of the city, she had lost all faith that the local officials had control of the situation. The city-wide evacuation order was then announced the next day. 

“When the evacuation did come, it was very obvious that they didn’t have a plan,” Dhindsa said.

“In the future, I will have no confidence with the city and the [N.W.T. government] with any sort of evacuation or emergency management.”  

‘So many different variables,’ mayor said

In the spring and earlier this summer, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the city’s emergency plan didn’t get into specifics because there were “so many different scenarios” that could affect an emergency response. 

“There’s so many different variables that would go into it,” she said in an earlier interview with CBC News. “It’s about having an evacuation framework and working through that.”

A woman stands before two flags near a window.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said multiple times leading up to the evacuation that the plan would be for people to shelter in place, with the Multiplex serving as an evacuation centre. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

Alty said in a brief email to CBC News on Sept. 1 that she wouldn’t be available for an interview on the evacuation strategy until after the city’s governance and priorities committee meeting during the week of Sept. 25.

She also said the city needs to do a “a full review of everything” related to the city’s evacuation. 

The city did not respond directly when asked about criticisms of its planning for a full-scale evacuation. But spokesperson Sarah Sibley said in an email Tuesday that the “city has an emergency plan which includes an emergency evacuation framework.”

However, when the city first issued an overview of the framework on July 26, it specified that the framework was not the same thing as an evacuation plan. A plan, the city said at the time, had not been finalized.

Sibley wrote that the city is responsible for emergency planning and emergency response “and works closely with the Government of the NWT in planning for and managing an emergency.” 

“The NWT Emergency Plan is clear that when local authorities require assistance, it asks the GNWT; and when the GNWT needs assistance, it asks Canada,” she wrote.

Sibley said the city couldn’t provide a more detailed response because staff were busy preparing for residents to return on Wednesday, when the evacuation order is lifted.

Sophia Craig-Massey is a professional emergency management disaster specialist who teaches disaster management at York University. She wasn’t surprised that Yellowknife didn’t have a plan for a full-scale evacuation. 

She said emergency planning needs to be flexible, as an emergency situation can change quickly. That’s why there were likely no specifics provided in the lead up to the evacuation order, she said.

“There’s not a cookie-cutter approach to disaster emergency management,” she said. 

However, Craig-Massey said that as more disasters occur across Canada, it’s becoming more common for emergency planners and municipalities to put together “hazard specific plans.”

‘We want to know what the actual… plan is for people’

On July 26, two days after the community of Behchokǫ, N.W.T., evacuated under threat of the same wildfire that later forced the evacuation of Yellowknife, and after mounting pressure from residents and the media, the city issued a link to an evacuation framework. That document also included few concrete details. 

The six-page framework discusses the process for declaring an evacuation, the different types of evacuations, and a flow chart including steps like, “understand threat” and “determine risk area.” 

It doesn’t detail where evacuees might go, or how fleeing residents could find necessary resources — like gas and washrooms — along the road. 

Dhindsa was not impressed.

“[The framework] is like who’s going to make decisions. Like, we don’t care who’s going to make decisions as part of your emergency plan,” said Dhindsa. 

“We want to know what the actual, on-the-ground, actual plan is for people.” 

Smoke over homes.
An orange smoke cloud rolled into Yellowknife on Aug. 13, days before the city was evacuated. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

In mid-August, as the wildfire threat to Yellowknife increased, many city residents called for a comprehensive plan for a city-wide evacuation. Instead, the city told residents that if it came to that, they’d be given warning.

They weren’t.

No city-wide evacuation alert was issued before everyone was told to leave

N.W.T.’s Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson, who ultimately ordered the evacuation of Yellowknife, declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokesperson said Thompson is “still focused on getting through the fires and evacuations” and will be in Enterprise, Hay River, and Fort Smith, N.W.T., over the next two days.

A ‘complete failure,’ expert says

The evacuation order came suddenly on Aug. 16, at around 7:40 p.m., and gave no information about where evacuees should go. 

“For me, making the decision not to evacuate in the first part, and then to change it, is the worst thing you can do,” said Alain Normand, the emergency management expert from York Unversity.

The order wasn’t even issued by the city itself. It was given by Thompson, the territorial government minister, who had officially taken over the emergency response hours earlier.  

N.W.T. officials said it would be a phased evacuation, but no details on the phases were initially provided. Meanwhile, thousands of residents quickly headed for the one highway out of town, and drove out overnight.

Cars are seen in a line on a highway.
Yellowknife residents leave the city on Highway 3, the only highway in or out of the community, after the evacuation order was issued last month. (Pat Kane/Reuters)

Normand said an actual phased approach could have been used in this case, if the city had a detailed neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood evacuation plan that the community was aware of before the announcement went out.  

Normand said based on the city’s population, it’s likely that 6,000 cars were on the highway out of town that first night after the order was announced. 

“It was mixed messaging… with no specific instructions of where to go, how to get there, and no resources with you to be able to get there,” he said. 

Those flying out had an even worse time, with many waiting hours in lines for evacuation flights.

A man sits wearing a blue shirt and headphones.
Alain Normand, who teaches emergency management communication at York University, says the city of Yellowknife failed on its evacuation strategy. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

Some might argue that Yellowknife’s evacuation was a success — the vast majority of residents safely left the city, 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 the re-entry on Wednesday.

Though Normand’s vision for a successful re-entry looks significantly different from what the city announced on Sept. 1.   

“You can’t just say, ‘People, OK, you can come back,'” he said. 

Normand said people should return neighbourhood by neighbourhood. 

“Right now, they failed, in my opinion.… They didn’t do a very good job with evacuation. How will they do with re-entry? We’ll see.”

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