In this week’s Dump Tales, columnist Walt Humphries urges the City of Yellowknife to take lessons from last year’s fire in Fort McMurray and develop a more proactive fire emergency plan.
photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Forest-fire season is coming. How prepared are we?

I want you to think back to the film footage you saw of the Fort McMurray fire, especially the shots of people trying to flee the city. High winds, walls of flame, billowing clouds of smoke, low visibility, sparks and embers blowing across the roads.

Forest-fire specialist Alan Westhaven has concluded the blizzard of embers blowing into Fort McMurray set parched lawns, bushes, decks and roofs on fire and that is what caused most buildings to burn. I suspect a similar thing happened in the Slave Lake fire and in most big fires. High winds, embers and a very dry community are a recipe for disaster. So, what have we learned from this?

Remember back in 2014 when we had a fire burning a mere 27 kilometres west of Yellowknife? Under the right conditions and with the right wind, that fire could have been at the edge of town in a matter of hours. Were we prepared for that?

People were asking the city what they were doing. The answer was, “Nothing.”

They went on to explain the protocol was for the city to do nothing until some other level of government, presumably the GNWT, declared an emergency. Personally, I didn’t like that answer because the GNWT has a rather spotty record of warning people that their camps, cottages, homes or lodges are about to burn down.

The city then went on to explain that once an emergency was declared, presumably as the fire roared into town, they would call a meeting of the designated emergency committee. They would then sit down and evaluate the situation. When in doubt, call a committee meeting. They also reminded everyone that people caught up in an emergency are expected to fend for themselves for 72 hours. Then we heard rumours the plan was to herd everyone into the downtown core and get a flotilla of boats and barges from Hay River to evacuate people. That could take days or weeks.

They finally released “the emergency plan” for Yellowknife which is euphemistically called “Stay in place.”

This basically means hunker down and hope for the best. Personally, I am not really sure “do nothing” qualifies as a plan.

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if a forest fire broke out in or around town and we were engulfed in a blizzard of embers. The limited fire-fighting assets we have would be deployed to protect the airport, hospital and downtown core of government buildings.

The green spaces and residential areas would soon be engulfed in flames. Hard to “stay in place” when the place is a raging inferno. A lot of people would panic and try to escape town by vehicles or boats. A few would gallantly try to fight the fires with garden houses. Billions of dollars of damage would occur and unfortunately, I fear a number of people would perish either in the fire or in the stampede to escape it.

So what should the plan be to avoid this? When a fire gets close, that is the time to start. Wet down as much of the town, its green spaces and the surrounding bush as possible. Northern towns should have the equipment on hand to do this. We have lots of water, so let’s use it. Also, every house in town should have a rooftop sprinkler system. The idea is to create a humidity dome. Rather than stay in place, most of the population – except for those who plan to fight the fire – should be moved to safer places like the lakes, downtown core or out of town. Get as many people out of harm’s way as possible.

My thought is, we can spend a few million now to avoid losing billions later. That should be the new firefighting motto for Canada and particularly for the North. Let’s come up with some plans that make sense and have a chance of succeeding. Better to be prepared than to lose everything.