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Yellowknife never had a plan for a city-wide evacuation

The City of Yellowknife did not have a specific plan for a large-scale evacuation of the NWT capital before it was forced into action last month.

“We were absolutely prepared shelter in place plan. The whole concept of evacuating the entire city of Yellowknife is not something that is included in our emergency planning, nor indeed in the GNWT. [Government of Northwest Territories]or,” City Manager Sheila Bassey-Kellet acknowledged at a news conference Monday.

The city’s evacuation order will be officially lifted Wednesday afternoon, meaning about 22,000 people will return home from Alberta, Manitoba, BC, the Yukon and elsewhere.

The territory ordered the evacuation of Yellowknife, Ndilū, Dettah and Ingraham Trail on Aug. 18, with city officials saying that if a wildfire threatened Yellowknife, people would be moved away from the most dangerous areas. the city to other areas of the city, back multiplex serving as an evacuation center for the displaced.

WATCH |: NWT evacuees say they are happy to finally go home.

The people of Yellowknife are getting ready to go home

With Yellowknife and two surrounding areas under evacuation orders Wednesday afternoon, residents are preparing to break camp and head north. Service stations along the route are set to accommodate thousands of vehicles.

That makes little sense to Allen Normand, who teaches emergency management communications at York University. He said the shelter plan wouldn’t work in a wildfire.

“You’re keeping them in the zone where there’s a fire,” he said, adding that the city’s original plan didn’t consider worsening air quality.

Normand, who followed Yellowknife’s 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 large-scale fire.

He said a remote town like Yellowknife should have a plan and that plan should be publicized.

Yellowknife resident Sukhmanpreet Dhindsa said after the city’s August 15 evacuation alert was issued only for the western parts of the city, she lost faith that local officials had the situation under control. An evacuation order was then issued for the entire city the following day.

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

“In the future, I will have distrust with the city and the city [N.W.T. government] with any evacuation or emergency management.”

“So many different variables,” the mayor said

In spring and earlier this summerYellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the city’s emergency plan is not detailed because there are “so many different scenarios” that could affect emergency response.

“There are so many different variables that can go into it,” he told CBC News in an earlier interview. “It’s about having an evacuation framework and working through it.”

A woman stands by a window in front of two flags.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said multiple times that the evacuation was in place, that the plan was for people to shelter in place and the Multiplex to serve as an evacuation center. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

Alty said in a brief email to CBC News on Sept. 1 that he would not be available for an interview about the evacuation strategy until after the city’s management and priorities committee meets the week of Sept. 25.

He also said the city should do a “complete review of everything” related to the city’s evacuation.

The city did not directly respond when asked about criticism of the large-scale evacuation planning. 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 released an overview of the framework on July 26, it clarified that the framework is not the same as an evacuation plan. At the time, the municipality said the plan had not been finalized.

Sibley wrote that the city is responsible for emergency planning and emergency response “and works closely with NWT government in emergency planning and management.”

“The NWT Contingency Plan is clear that when local governments need help, they turn to the GNWT, and when the GNWT needs help, it turns to Canada,” he wrote.

Sibley said the city could not provide further details because crews were busy preparing for residents to return Wednesday when the evacuation order is lifted.

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

He said emergency planning must be flexible because the emergency situation can change quickly. That’s probably why no specifics regarding the evacuation order were provided, he said.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach to disaster emergency management,” he said.

However, Craig-Massey said as more disasters hit Canada, it’s becoming more common for emergency planners and municipalities to draw up “specific hazard plans.”

“We want to know what the real… program is for people.”

On July 26, two days after the NWT community of Behchoku was evacuated under the threat of the same wildfire that later forced the evacuation of Yellowknife, and after pressure from residents and the media, the city issued a link to evacuation frame. That document also included some specific details.

The six-page framework discusses the process of declaring an evacuation, the different types of evacuation, and a flowchart that includes steps such as “understand the threat” and “determine the risk area.”

It did not detail where evacuees could go, or how fleeing residents could find essential resources, such as gas and toilets, along the way.

Dhindsa was not impressed.

“[The framework] like who will make the decisions. For example, we don’t care who is going to make the decisions as part of your contingency plan,” Dhindsa said.

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

Smoke on houses.
A cloud of orange smoke rolled into Yellowknife on August 13, days before the city was evacuated. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

In mid-August, as the wildfire threat increased for Yellowknife, many residents of the city called for a comprehensive plan to evacuate the entire city. Instead, the municipality has told residents that if it succeeds, they will be given it warning.

They weren’t.

Previously, no city-wide evacuation alert was announced everyone was told to leave.

NWT Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson, who ultimately ordered the evacuation of Yellowknife, declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokeswoman said Thompson is “still focused on getting through the fires and evacuations” and will be in Enterprise, High River and Fort Smith, NWT, over the next two days.

“A complete failure,” says the expert

Evacuation order On August 16, around 19:40, he came suddenly and did not give any information about where the evacuees should go.

“To me, deciding not to evacuate in the first place and then changing it is the worst thing you can do,” said Allen Normand, an emergency management expert at York University.

Even the municipality did not issue the order. It was given by Territorial Government Minister Thompson, who had officially taken over emergency response hours earlier.

NWT officials said it would be a phased evacuation, but details on the phases were not initially provided. Meanwhile, thousands of residents rushed to a single highway out of town and out into the night.

Cars are seen on a marked highway.
Yellowknife residents are leaving the city on Highway 3, the only highway in or out of the community, following an evacuation order last month. (Pat Kane/Reuters)

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

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

“It was mixed messages … with no specific instructions on where to go, how to get there, and no resources to help you get there,” she said.

The bouncers had an even worse time, with many waiting times for evacuation flights.

A man is sitting in a blue shirt and headphones.
Alain Normand, who teaches emergency management communications at York University, said the city of Yellowknife failed in its evacuation strategy. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

Some might argue that the evacuation of Yellowknife 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 “total failure”. He said the city could still save itself on how it handles Wednesday’s re-entry.

Although Normand’s vision for a successful reunion appears to be is significantly different what the municipality announced on September 1.

“You can’t just say, people, okay, you can go back,” he said.

Normand said people have to go back neighborhood by neighborhood.

“Right now, I think they failed… They didn’t do a very good job with the evacuation. How are they going to do the re-entry? We’ll see.”

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