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Steve Ellis: We’ve had a hard lesson this summer

Most of us Yellowknifers are either on our way back at home or already settling in now that the wildfire evacuation has ended.

Most of us Yellowknifers are either on our way back at home or already settling in now that the wildfire evacuation has ended.

For all of us, the past few weeks have been a time of high anxiety and mixed emotions. We’ve feared for the safety of our families. We’ve been angry at the confusing communications from politicians. We’ve worried if we will ever recover all the money we have spent while down south. At the same time, we’ve been touched by the generosity of the communities hosting us and the togetherness shown by NWTers in a time of crisis.

Over the coming days, we will be reflecting on what we have just been through. Many of us will be wondering, “Was this all really necessary?” and “Did the politicians make the right decisions?” Now that we have some hindsight, we’ll start questioning whether evacuation actions were warranted or excessive.

Certainly, some decisions were made without enough thought given to the consequences. For example, it didn’t seem anyone had thought through how shutting down the city would impact communities who depend on the capital for everything from transportation to food to medical care. Also, in the rush to evacuate everyone down south, little consideration seems to have been given to how to get everyone back to the NWT. Many, especially our most vulnerable, are at risk of getting lost in the Edmonton, Calgary or Winnipeg, often without a loonie in their pocket.

Any of us could find flaws in the decisions made around this evacuation, and it is natural to start pointing fingers and finding blame. My view is that we need to be gentle with each other this time around — particularly with those who bore the burden of having to make some really tough calls. These 2023 wildfires are not something we’ve ever experienced at this intensity, and we’ve never had our communities under such threat. This is unprecedented stuff! I like to think our leaders did the best they could under conditions of extreme panic and fear.

While we should be easy on each other in the coming weeks, we should also treat this as a wake-up call. We should never again go into a fire season with our communities so unprepared. Our climate is increasingly uncertain, and wildfires will once again threaten our communities. Probably real soon. We need to be proactive in how we prepare the fire defences around our cities. Fire breaks should be built around all our forest communities now, instead of at the last minute when the threat is imminent. If we need more firefighting equipment and more trained firefighters, let’s buy the stuff and train people right away.

We’ve had a crash course in how — and how not to — evacuate our capital and several other communities. Let’s hold each other accountable to learn from this. Evacuation plans need to be developed for all our forest communities, and, just as importantly, these plans need to be communicated and understood by our residents. These plans need to be comprehensive – they should not only deal with how to get people out of town safely, but also how to ease personal financial costs, take care of our most vulnerable, cooperate with Indigenous governments, and lessen the burden on local businesses. All these things were ill-considered this time around, and money needs to be allocated and people assigned to think these things through and come up with solutions.

Next time around, it will be no excuse to say that “this is unprecedented.” We’ve had a hard lesson this summer. We have a responsibility to learn from this experience and be stronger together next time around.