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Yellowknife Residents Share Wildfire Experiences at Public Engagement Session

On the evening of March 27th, the City of Yellowknife held a public engagement session to help gather information on the actions taken by the local and territorial government during last year’s wildfires.

Over 100 city residents filed into the Multiplex for the meeting where they were invited to stand before the microphone and share their experiences before, during, and after the fires and evacuations. The organizers, KPMG, made sure to acknowledge that some of these matters were emotionally distressing, and that the City Government was not involved in the review process.

The meeting was split into three different main topics; Preparation and Mitigation, Response, and Re-Entry. While not every resident in attendance shared their two-cents, most of the room was in agreement with those who did speak, and one main idea was at the forefront of the whole session;

Those in charge during the wildfires did a very poor job of communicating to the public.

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Among the many experiences and ideas shared, many residents shared their own ways of how they experienced a lack of clear communication when it came to how bad the fire situation truly was, and whether or not the city would be evacuating. It was made clear that communication was also incredibly poor after the evacuation, and while NWT residents were scattered about the southern provinces. Some questioned why there was little preparations made in the aftermath of the Territory’s previous fires, and when the question arose of how trust in the government could be regained, it was simply stated that there needs to be better communication with the public, both on what firefighting strategies are being implemented, and in having publicly open and clearly laid out plans.

Some attendees noted that there were claims that Yellowknife would never evacuate, which caused confusion and panic when the order suddenly came out of the blue on August 16th. The sentiment was raised that the City had the opportunity to learn from Behchoko’s earlier evacuation, and that the City could have evacuated sooner than it did, and when the order did come, it felt more like an “evacuation expectation” rather than a planned out order.

One city resident summed up the experience very succinctly, saying “the direction was: Go Away.”

After the evacuation, many residents had very different experiences outside of the Territory. One attendee reported that the treatment of evacuees in High Level was excellent, especially in terms of handing out fuel, which the checkpoint at Fort Providence was simply too small to match.

In a similar vein, the evacuation centres that were established in other cities were hit or miss. One woman described having a very stressful time in dealing with the evacuation centre set up at the Edmonton Expo Centre, while another man stated that Fox Creek was perfectly equipped, and even had room for more.

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Not everyone left Yellowknife, of course. One of the speakers at the session was a volunteer who stayed behind to help take care of the city, and he reported more of the same; bad communication. He described long lineups when the rest of the community was leaving, and that much of the caretaking jobs that were performed were organized outside of government channels, instead being established by other volunteers. Those who stayed behind were given the tasks of taking care of pets, taking out garbage from homes, and emptying their neighbour’s refrigerators of spoiled foods. As the cherry on top, the speaker stated that the volunteers were given very little reward or recognition for their work.

The discussions of the efforts of the volunteers lead to a question that was asked a few times throughout the evening; Where was the City leadership, and what were they doing during that time?

From that confusion and distrust, a few residents brought up the idea of a non-government, citizen committee of some kind which could help pass along information in a more digestible manner.

Once the discussion turned to the re-entry topic, there was little time remaining for the engagement session, but a few ideas and perspectives were still presented. It was stated that the re-entry was much better than the evacuation, but it still had a few bumps in the road. Residents were pleased to see a tangible plan, with the phased re-entry strategy that was revealed. In execution, however, the trek back to the city was hard, with those who had flown out suddenly being told that their hotels were kicking them out, and that they had to be on planes back to Yellowknife within the hour.

This session was but one part of a larger process of finding out what went wrong last summer, and what can be done better in the future. The GNWT has hired KPMG to hold these meetings, which will continue throughout April. In May, the information gathered will be closely examined, with a final report being provided to the City of Yellowknife in June, which will be immediately available to the public.

In attendance at the session was Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, who was grateful to hear this feedback from the city.

“I really appreciate residents coming out and sharing everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that the consultants, KPMG can include that in their report and come forward with recommendations so that we can improve. I would say that the one thing I would touch on is that, we’re not waiting for this report, and THEN we’re going to start planning. Ever since we returned, staff have been doing the internal reviews and starting that work, and so we’ll see more and more comms coming out in the coming months, but I think it was really constructive and important to hear what didn’t work and what we can improve. We appreciate everybody’s feedback.

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When asked what the City has been doing to improve on what has already been criticized in the last few months, Alty was able to share some details.

“Some of the stuff I would say is on the comms front, which we heard a lot about tonight. It was great to hear from residents about not wanting a detailed, technical report. We want a summarized, plain language document of ‘what should I do? What’s the government going to do?’ so that’s helpful.”

She elaborated that a large, five-hundred page document isn’t very digestible for the general public. She also touched on trying to work better and communicate more clearly with the GNWT since they work so closely together.

KPMG will be taking in additional feedback until April 12th, and residents can send in their personal experiences online at

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