Documents reveal questions and confusion among officials during Yellowknife's 2023 wildfire evacuation

On Aug. 16, 2023, about 40 minutes before the N.W.T. government issued an evacuation order for Yellowknife due to threatening wildfires, a director with the city emailed the territorial government asking for basic details on where evacuees should go and who they could contact for assistance.

Those questions, which weren't immediately answered at the time, reveal some of the confusion and rushed decision-making that marked the mass evacuation of the majority of the territory last summer.

The co-ordination between the N.W.T. government, City of Yellowknife, federal government and Canadian Armed Forces is captured in emails and briefing notes CBC News obtained through an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy request.

The documents show the many issues faced by officials as they dealt with the unprecedented emergency, including the scramble to find accommodation for evacuees, the local hospital emergency room's near-closure from a lack of staff, and how a group may have been planning to cut in line for the evacuation flights.

Mayor Rebecca Alty says the city's emergency plan doesn’t get specific about wildfires, because there are so many variables that could alter the response.
Mayor Rebecca Alty called on the federal government to provide quicker support to Yellowknife during the evacuation. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

'We can't let government bureaucracy weigh us down'

At around 8:30 p.m. on the day before Yellowknife's evacuation order was issued, the city manager — who was then Sheila Bassi-Kellett — sent an email to the territorial government to formally request support, including resources for sheltering in place "given NTHSSA [Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority] confirmed it is not able to support."

"The city does not have the capacity to provide the social supports that are the mandate of [Health and Social Services] to do in an emergency situation," the email reads.

She also asked for support in the event of a city evacuation, which "may be a reality." The evacuation order went out the following day.

The day after the order was issued, Aug. 17, Mayor Rebecca Alty reached out to Bill Blair, federal minister of national defence, to urge Canada to provide more resources for the city to coordinate the mass evacuation. Alty said the city needed immediate help with the logistics of getting people onto evacuation flights.

"I'm hoping that you and [N.W.T.] Minister [Shane] Thompson will be able to work together to quickly mobilize some folks to come and provide support to get evacuees registered and sent out on flights asap. We can't let government bureaucracy weigh us down in this time," Alty wrote.

Alty also contacted the territorial government, calling for more urgent action to get people out of the evacuation zone.

"Based on Minister Blair's comments, the military can get an airlift operation underway within two hours of him giving the order. Will you be requesting this right now? We need this," she wrote.

"The fire is anticipated to reach our boundary by Saturday. We can't be pushing flights to continue on Friday and Saturday. We need the military now. Your staff have been working hard, but as you've noted, your crews are skeleton crews. Why wait?"

Evacuees from Yellowknife, many of whom have driven all night, head into the evacuation centre at the High Level Sports Complex in High Level, Alta., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.
Evacuees from Yellowknife, many of whom had driven all night, head into an evacuation centre in High Level, Alta., on Aug. 17, 2023. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Evacuation centres reaching capacity

Other N.W.T. communities had been evacuated in the days before Yellowknife's order was issued, and municipalities in Alberta were already struggling to keep up with the influx of evacuees. That complicated evacuation flights out of Hay River on Aug. 15.

"Alberta has indicated that they can't accept this volume of evacuees until a new host location is identified so we would need to confirm with them before sending," reads an internal email from one N.W.T. official.

Other emails sent between officials on Aug. 15 detailed that Wood Buffalo was at capacity which further complicated evacuations.

"We won't be able to arrange new flights until an alternate reception centre is established with [Alberta]," wrote another official with the territorial government.

What stores are open?

There was also confusion around what necessities would be available to essential workers who remained in Yellowknife after the evacuation.

On Aug. 17, an internal email from a city official in Yellowknife pointed out logistical issues around provisions for contractors building the firebreaks around the city.

"We are working with the private sector contractors building the [firebreaks] and doing heavy equipment work. They need confirmation that there will be [the] ability to provision their workers," the email reads.

The city asked what stores would remain open and told the territorial government to keep those businesses in the loop with future information.

"You have to include Rochdi's Independent in your planning as well. We have reached out to them already, and they were supplying us last night because we needed food for the contractors who are building the firebreaks who were working overnight."

In a separate email on Aug. 18, a city official wrote that the territory needed to ensure there was enough fuel and support.

"I understand there are many pockets of essential personnel who are not aware of any logistical support and are in need of it. We've taken care of contractors but others are adrift. This has got to be a top priority," the city official wrote.

Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife on Aug. 21, 2021.
Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife in 2021. There was concern the hospital didn't have resources to provide care to essential workers during Yellowknife's evacuation. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Hospital E.R. nearly closed

The territory was also facing other logistical issues, including the possible closure of the Stanton Territorial Hospital emergency room because of staffing. On Aug. 17, territorial officials made a desperate plea to the federal government for help.

In one email, an N.W.T. official requested a humanitarian and trauma field hospital be deployed to Yellowknife "as soon as possible for an initial period of two weeks with possibility of extension.

"This is needed very urgently as Stanton has indicated they plan to shut down tomorrow, and fire fighting operations required here cannot continue without trauma support available," the email reads.

In another email to federal ministers, an N.W.T. government official asked that their requests be "fast tracked," as "our response to the fire approaching Yellowknife is critical."

Ultimately, the federal government denied the request for a field hospital after a discussion with Northwest Territories Health and Social Services leadership, including CEO Kim Riles.

"They assured me that plans are currently in place at Stanton to ensure continuity of medical services," the email from the federal government said.

A line of people at Sir John Franklin High School, stretching down 49th Street, waiting to get on evacuation flights out of Yellowknife. The entire city has been ordered to evacuate by noon on Friday because of threatening wildfires.
A line of people at Sir John Franklin High School, stretching down 49th Street, waiting to get on evacuation flights out of Yellowknife last August. (Francis Tessier-Burns/CBC)

Group of evacuees planned to skip the line for flights

Emails from military personnel also reveal challenges with getting people on evacuation flights in an orderly manner.

One email described how a group was planning to show up to the evacuation flight gathering spot with the intention of cutting in line.

"They are seeking to be prioritized and jump the queue to get on the next flight," the military personnel member wrote.

"This does not sound right and we suspect it will cause some distress of those already in the queue."

In another email, a military personnel with Joint Task Force North wrote that the staff needed to have messaging explaining that everyone who wanted to get on an evacuation flight would be given a spot and there was no need to rush the line.

There was no update on what happened with the incident.