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Lack of advanced planning for 2023 wildfire season, report finds

It's been nearly a year since Yellowknife had to evacuate due to last year's wildfire season. It's left many seeking answers. On Monday, some of them might have been answered.

It's been nearly a year since Yellowknife had to evacuate due to last year's wildfire season and there are still more questions than answers as to why.

Some of them might have been answered during Monday's Governance and Priorities Committee meeting at city hall.

The committee heard from Leon Gaber from KPMG, the consultancy firm hired by the the city to work on a review of last summer's wildfire response. The full report is meant to come out in June, but city manager John Collin said the current findings made for good information.

Collin stressed that KPMG's findings are theirs alone.

"At no time has the city, nor will we, attempt to influence that,” he said.

Gaber explained that in February and March, they had collected all types of information from the city and how they responded to last year's wildfire season. That includes public surveys, interviews with GNWT staff, NGOs, essential service providers and more. They also reviewed both internal and public documents.

"There was not clarity in the interpretation of the (territorial) legislation with respect to roles and responsibilities between municipal and territorial agencies," said Gaber.

He emphasized the city's lack of clarity caused a number of other issues, many of which come down to a lack of clear communication, both between governments and the general public. 

"Leading up to the evacuation, there was a lack of advanced planning efforts between the city staff and the territorial government," Gaber added.

That included joint training, coordination and identifying essential services.

Adding to a lacking list are the shortcomings of evacuation routes and centres, modes of transportation, considering unique needs for vulnerable groups and considering people’s pets. “A plan should consider those logistics,” said Gaber.

When it comes to communicating with the general public, it was lacking, according to KPMG's early findings. Gaber noted they found there was minimal notice to evacuate and the city came up short on providing needed information on the evacuation. He also highlighted people who speak English as a second language or are visually impaired as examples of members of the public who specifically struggled with the city's lack of communication. 

That said, Gaber did give credit where it was due.

KPMG reported that the city identified capacity issues and made the right requests for help from the GNWT and Canadian Forces. The report also praised the establishment of an emergency operations centre and finding the right staff to fill key roles throughout the evacuation. 

"Evacuations and emergency events of this scope and scale, I don't think you could look at any agency around the world and not find an area for improvement," Gaber said.

After KPMG's presentation, Collin also highlighted some changes the city has made and is still working on in case of another emergency.

He said they have an emergency operations centre in place with personnel training underway for staff.

"We're also developing our community wildfire protection plan," Collin added. "That will be in place by the end of June." 

The plan is an updated version of 2019's plan and is meant to address the more current needs to protect this city.

"Please don't take this to the bank, but we are looking at the possibility of having a mobile sprinkler system that we could use on the outskirts of the city should the need arise," said Collin.

Collin also acknowledged improving the plan so those who need extra assistance will get it.

"If we are to evacuate, or even displace people within the city, our evacuation plan will cater to address vulnerable populations," he said.

But when it comes to NGOs helping vulnerable populations in day-to-day affairs during an emergency, Collin said there is very little the city has in its toolkit that can help with that.

"We don't have extra workers, we don't have teams that are trained in most of the areas that would need to be addressed," he said. "So therefore, they really do need to try and achieve as much self-sufficiency as possible in those circumstances." 

About the Author: Devon Tredinnick

Devon Tredinnick is a reporter for NNSL Media. Originally from Ottawa, he's also a recent journalism graduate from Carleton University.
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