With an uncontrollable wildfire burning its way toward Yellowknife in late July 2023, the senior civil servant in charge of the Northwest Territories capital, Sheila Bassi-Kellett, added a new routine to her day: every afternoon at 5 p.m., she would walk across downtown to meet with fire staff at the territorial Environment and Climate Change department.

One line of questioning dominated the discussion.

“What is [the fire] going to do? What are the winds gonna do? What are the weather predictions?” Bassi-Kellett would ask. 

“When it was at Boundary Creek, that’s when all bets were off,” she recalls.

The fire at Boundary Creek was still about 40 kilometres from City Hall, a distance that gave officials some comfort. But a different wildfire, a little more than 200 kilometres away on the southwestern side of Great Slave Lake, soon opened their eyes to the ferocious speed and power of this new era of fire. 

Driven by 90 km/h winds, the fire, known as SS052, made a mad dash southeast from Kakisa, moving 40 kilometres each day for two days in a row. “This fire more than doubled our worst-case forecasting for fire progression for the day,” Mike Westwick, a fire information officer for the territorial government, wrote in a summary of the fire. On the second day, it made it all the way to Enterprise, N.W.T., where it destroyed almost the entire town

“Everyone’s minds were blown about that Sunday south of the lake,” Bassi-Kellett says, referring to the day Enterprise was razed by the fire. With strong winds blowing the fire onward from Boundary Creek, wafting thick plumes of smoke through Yellowknife, one question was on everyone’s minds: could the same thing happen here? 

Within days, local and territorial states of emergency were declared and, on Aug. 16, the city was emptied of all but essential personnel.

Some new arrivals joined Bassi-Kellett and the other essential staff at City Hall. Among them was Coby Duerr, the commander of Canada Task Force 2, a government-run emergency response agency based in Calgary. The group deploys within four hours of getting the call, sending up to 75 specialists, equipment and supplies to the heart of a disaster — like the 2013 Calgary flood, the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., or, in this case, Yellowknife. 

Duerr’s team urged the city staff to limit their 12-hour days to seven-day stretches.

“They said, ‘Great, after seven days, who’s going to trade off with you?’ ” Bassi-Kellet recalls. “We all looked around because every member of my team that was here was fully deployed.” 

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The fire edged closer to the community. The state of emergency allowed the city to compel contractors to bring heavy equipment to the city’s western edge to dig massive fire breaks, and volunteers worked alongside professional firefighters (local and imported from all over the world) within the city to set up sprinkler systems to quell embers. The sprinklers could be necessary in a season where fires jumped rivers more than a kilometre wide

Those firebreaks are still in place today, as the scars left by the season fade and its lessons crystallize. Reviews are ongoing at many different levels: individual ministries and local governments alike are examining what they could have done better. 

But there are only a few short weeks left until the snow melts and the next fire season begins, and with an extreme drought blotting out much of the West, 2024 is likely to be yet another bad fire year. Two-thirds of the entire Northwest Territories was evacuated during the 2023 fire season as an area the size of Switzerland burned. Another 86,000 people were under evacuation orders in B.C. and Alberta. As officials reflect on lessons learned from past disasters, one thing is clear: evacuations are increasingly a new normal in the West, in part because fires — and floods — are getting worse due to climate change.

With few tools to immediately curb these disasters, we need to reimagine what people, and governments, do when they’re in the path of a wildfire. 

“We are seeing a very clear trend and events like these are happening more frequently,” Duerr says. “They’re bigger in nature, and they’re lasting longer than they ever have before. This is something that we need to look at holistically across the country, and say, ‘How are we going to support these into the future?’ ”

A planned ignition takes off after an unexpected wind shift on the Rossmore Lake Wildfire in mid-August, 2023.
Firefighters say climate change is driving longer seasons and more extreme fire behaviour, the likes of which few veterans have seen before. In some cases, it is making planned ignitions, such as this one outside Kamloops, B.C., a challenge. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

After the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, an entire community learned to live with fire

Jody Butz knows the feeling of watching a besieging disaster launch its assault: Butz was the operations section chief of the Fort McMurray fire department when an infamous wildfire, known locally as The Beast, roared into the community in 2016.

That fire was Canada’s costliest disaster ever, causing the evacuation of 88,000 people in a matter of hours and destroying 2,600 buildings. But Butz, now the city’s fire chief, credits it with instilling a new seriousness in Fort McMurray when it comes to wildfire, something that even the partial destruction of the nearby community of Slave Lake, Alta., five years prior, hadn’t been able to do. 

“Never let a disaster go to waste,” Butz says — and he hasn’t. Today the community considers fire risk in a whole new way when it plans new developments, from location to building materials. FireSmarting, a practice of removing fuel — like wood piles or flammable vegetation — from buildings and their surroundings, has taken off in Fort McMurray. 

There’s also been a shift in mindset, which Butz boils down to this: “We live in the middle of the boreal forest, and the boreal forest is dependent on fire for its survival.”

Butz knows how high the stakes are, but now he has the benefit of being part of a community that also knows, intimately, the costs of fire; it was their homes and treasured belongings that were lost, and their loved ones they feared for as they fled. Now, he says he sees the community self-policing risky activities on social media, like all-terrain vehicle use during restrictions on backcountry access, or burning during fire bans. 

“Community members will jump on that, say, ‘Don’t you dare!’ ” he says. 

The community’s emergency leadership strategy has also changed. In 2016, there was no plan for evacuating the entire city, so it had to happen on the fly. Today, every individual community within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (which includes Fort McMurray) has its own plan, created in consultation with its members. That’s not the case everywhere in Canada — and where there are thought-out local plans, implementation is the real test. 

Connor Corbett helped fight The Beast in 2016. Now a professional forester who works on wildfire resiliency, Corbett spent weeks last year travelling across northern B.C. talking to residents about wildfire preparations. One thing he heard again and again was that residents don’t feel they’re in the loop when a wildfire or an evacuation is coming. 

“Evacuation orders seem to come out of the blue,” he says. “A lot of people are often confused.” 

Despite these lessons, both surprise and confusion were defining elements of wildfire responses across the West again last summer. 

Evacuations are the new normal as few other options remain

Margaret Bell’s Yellowknife home had already been evacuated when she had to flee a second fire, this time as she visited her brother in Kelowna. She could see the fire growing across the lake in West Kelowna, the smoke plume undulating across the lake like a living thing. 

“It was eating the sky,” she recalls over the phone from Yellowknife. This was in mid-August, immediately following the horrors of the Maui fire, and as a result, she says, “My risk tolerance was at zero.”

In a split-second decision, she jumped in a car headed to Vancouver, where she caught a flight back across the smoke-filled mountains to Calgary. The city had procured hotel rooms for N.W.T. evacuees there, so she worked remotely on a borrowed laptop as she waited for her chance to return to Yellowknife. 

That would take three weeks from the time of the evacuation. That’s actually shorter than the norm, if B.C. is any indication: a Tyee analysis of B.C. evacuation data found nearly half of fire-related evacuations last 30 to 60 days.

Increasingly, evacuation may be the only option.

A man sprays water from a blue hose on charred black land with some vegetation and charred trees, next to a wooden fence and grass during the wildfires in the NWT
Following a wildfire that destroyed the town of Enterprise, N.W.T., crews surveyed what was left and doused embers. Photo: Zachary Pangborn

That’s in part because firefighting itself is already doing as much as it can to reduce risks, according to David Andison, a fire ecologist. Firefighting and fire management has come a long way in the past century, from a system of fighting every single fire — which built up fuel on the landscape and is part of the reason for today’s bigger, hotter fires — to one that looks more holistically at the potential losses and harms alongside the natural benefits of fire for ecosystems. 

But the flipside to that improvement is there isn’t a whole lot more that can be done to optimize firefighting itself, Andison says in an interview. 

“Any improvement we’re going to make now is going to be incremental,” he says. “We’ve kind of boxed ourselves in.”

Higher adoption of FireSmart techniques, with a few simple changes to fence design, yard layout or even cleaning the gutters can reduce the likelihood of losses by significant margins. Fire breaks, like those dug outside of Yellowknife or burned into the landscape ahead of an approaching fire, can help slow it down. 

But even if the fire is stopped, smoke is an increasing concern for people who are caught downwind. 

“The more research that comes out, the more it points to: smoke is really bad for you. Really,” Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., says. “It’s even worse than we thought. And it’s even worse than we thought five years ago.” 

A 2020 study found short- and long-term exposure to wildfire smoke could be responsible for upwards of 2,500 premature deaths every year in Canada, and as much as $20 billion in health care costs. 

That all points more and more to evacuation as a means of avoiding human costs from fires, placing an ever greater burden on evacuees — and on the governments charged with supporting them. 

Scotch Creek Bridge during 2023 wildfires
Flames silhouette Skwlāx Mountain where the Adams Lake fire jumped across Shuswap Lake, near Chase, B.C. A bridge was kept in tact for crossing by being doused in water. Photo: Mike Graeme / The Narwhal

Wildfire evacuations come with costs, risks and confusion

After fleeing Kelowna, Bell got used to her new Calgary digs: a hotel in the middle of nowhere, packed with stressed-out evacuees, some of whom responded to the situation with copious alcohol, rising tempers and violence. 

“I’m hearing women screaming for help,” she says. “People are now stuck in very close quarters to each other, and they don’t have the resources or the safety that they may have been able to escape to if they’re in a domestic abuse situation.”

(Researchers and the World Health Organization have found domestic violence can increase during emergencies, particularly when there is no protocol in place to protect people fleeing abuse.)

She went back to Kelowna, where the fires were now under control, and waited it out. 

In Yellowknife, skies were clear: the wildfire’s terrifying advance that had driven the need to evacuate in the first place had been halted 15 kilometres from the city by a lucky bout of rain. It was time to figure out how to safely bring people back, in an orderly fashion and to start thinking about how to do things better next time. 

When The Narwhal reached her in March, Bassi-Kellett was still working on the latter, but she has since stepped down from her role, citing the impact of the extreme workload on her family.

“Two mass community evacuations from forest fire is enough for my career, that’s it,” she jokes. The other evacuation happened in 1995 while she was working in Tulita, N.W.T., northwest of Yellowknife about halfway to the Arctic Ocean.

Bassi-Kellett spent a lot of her final year on the job trying to make things better for the next fire emergency, because anxiety — over fire risk and the possibility of another evacuation — is lingering in the city like the smell of smoke in your hair after a bonfire. 

“I always think the best way to tackle anxiety is to control as much as you can,” she says.  

Several Indigenous governments have called for a public inquiry into the 2023 wildfire response at the territorial level, including the Tłı̨chǫ Government and Dene Nation. A majority of members of the territorial legislative assembly voted in favour of a public inquiry in February; the government hasn’t promised anything, but did hire a consultant for an independent review of the fire response, along with reviews at the Ministry of Municipal and Community Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Aerial view of cars lined up on a highway under smokey skies, leading to a gas station at the shore of the Mackenzie River in the NWT
Under smokey skies, cars lined up for hours at the Big River Gas Station in Fort Providence, N.W.T., along the only highway out of the territory, during wildfire evacuations in August 2023. Photo: Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

The city hired KPMG to conduct its own independent review, and a new wildfire protection plan is being drafted with the help of the territorial government, with everything from fuel (read: tree) management to what to do with the sprinkler systems that are currently rolled up in shipping containers. The sports centre is being improved with better air quality management so people who can’t exercise outdoors have an indoor option. 

Communications are also being overhauled, with new information on the city’s website, which Bassi-Kellett admits was “lacking” last year. Others have put it in more disparaging terms, including the popular Instagram page, YellowknifeMemes, which posted a nonstop flood of images mocking confusing government messaging during the evacuation. In one meme, a viral interview clip of Jennifer Lawrence sobbing “What do you mean?” over and over is superimposed on a typically convoluted message from the City of Yellowknife regarding re-entry plans.

Bassi-Kellett wants to make sure that next time, people are getting the best information about the threat and how to prepare as quickly as possible, rather than the tangled web of information about different jurisdictions they received last year. 

“I’ve heard from enough people that said, ‘You know what, if I’m Citizen X, I don’t really give a shit about oh, well, the [territorial government’s] mandate is this and the city’s mandate is that.’ ”  

Across the West, governments and communities look to the future to prepare for more intense wildfires

Inter-jurisdictional wrangling is also evident in B.C. and Alberta. 

In the latter, the Rural Municipalities of Alberta association is lobbying the provincial government to standardize the level of service for evacuations — taking some of the guesswork out of providing service to evacuees, like those who flooded into Alberta from the Northwest Territories last summer. 

In B.C., a new Emergency and Disaster Management Act puts more responsibility on municipalities to prepare for and respond to emergencies, and the Union of BC Municipalities is asking for more funding from the province to implement the new act. 

Art Kaehn, a union area director with the Regional District of Fraser Fort George, lives in Hixon, B.C. Soon, “it’ll be flood season,” he says, “and then we’ll flip right into wildfire and then we could flip back.”

A person in a mask and cap is silhouetted by wildfire behind them while driving a car
Even if a fire is stopped, smoke is an increasing concern for people who are caught downwind. “The more research that comes out, the more it points to: smoke is really bad for you. Really,” Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., says. Photo: Mike Graeme / The Narwhal

Those disasters routinely take up all the resources the town has, drawing in every available staff member to manage the emergency rather than their usual duties — sanitation or running facilities, for example. 

Duerr, with Canada Task Force 2, says the organization is already well into its preparations for the demands that will come this year.

The western drought is persisting with no end in sight. But a bad season this year is not yet certain: June rains could still saturate the ground and prevent another bad year, Flannigan says. 

Regardless of how bad it gets, he thinks it’s extremely unlikely that 2024 (or any other year for a decade or two) will be another 2023, which shattered records in the West. But that’s not to say it will be good. Climate change is “loading the dice,” he likes to say, for more and more disastrous years.

“If it’s cool — relatively cool — and wet, we’re not going to have a problem,” he says. “If it’s hot, dry and windy? Hey, we have a real problem.” 

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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