Poor communications led to 'confusion and stress' for Yellowknifers during 2023 evacuation, report finds

Residents of Yellowknife wait to register for evacuation in August 2023 as wildfires were threatening the city. A new report from consulting firm KPMG looks at how the City of Yellowknife handled coordination, public communications, vulnerable populations, emergency operations and evacuation planning during the emergency.  (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters - image credit)

The firm tasked with reviewing how the City of Yellowknife handled last summer's wildfire evacuation presented 26 recommendations to city council about how it could do better in the event of another wildfire threat.

KPMG told the city about the interim findings of its after-action assessment in the spring. The firm presented its final 130-page report for the first time to city council on Monday afternoon, after speaking with 24 of the city's partners, nine key city staff, members of the emergency operations centre, and the public.

The recommendations have to do with coordination, public communications, vulnerable populations, emergency operations and evacuation planning. KPMG also outlined 19 key strengths and 35 areas where there was room for improvement.

"We've spent a lot of time through this process reflecting on the actions taken last summer," said Sheila Bassi-Kellett, as she introduced the report at Monday's council meeting. Bassi-Kellett was the city's manager at the time of the evacuation and is now in the role again on an interim basis.

"I still fully believe, at the time, we made the best decisions we could about our response with the information we had at the time."

KPMG found that FireSmarting is one area where the city could improve. Though city staff, contractors and volunteers put in "considerable effort" to build firebreaks and install sprinklers, KPMG pointed out that the work was done while wildfires were bearing down on the city — not during what it called the "mitigation and preparedness phase."

KPMG presented it's 130-page after action assessment to Yellowknife City Council on Monday afternoon.
KPMG presented it's 130-page after action assessment to Yellowknife City Council on Monday afternoon.

KPMG presented its 130-page after-action assessment report to Yellowknife City Council on Monday afternoon. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

KPMG found that although the city used the local state of emergency to harness resources, the timing of the declaration may have meant it took longer to get those resources. It also found there was a lack of clarity around the N.W.T.'s Emergency Management Act, particularly once the territory invoked its own state of emergency.

Another area with room for improvement, according to KPMG, was communication. The report describes how a lack of coordinated and clear communications from both the city and the N.W.T. government led to "significant confusion and stress" for the community. It also found the city did not have a detailed plan for a mass evacuation — a plan KPMG said should have been communicated to the public in advance.

While organizations supporting vulnerable people made "substantial contributions" to help their clients during the evacuation and the return home, KPMG found the city and the territory's plans didn't adequately address vulnerable peoples' needs, and the evacuation had "many negative consequences" for them.

The city also does not have a business continuity plan, KPMG found. This led to "significant disruptions" in operations leading up to and during the evacuation related to finance, information technology, and administration.

KPMG recommended that the city coordinate with the N.W.T. government to establish a "formal decision-making process" for declaring states of emergency and issuing evacuation notices, alerts and orders, and to reach a "shared understanding" of what the emergency act means.

Among its list of recommendations, KPMG also wants the city to establish a position within its emergency operations centre to help local organizations coordinate support for vulnerable people, develop an emergency management training plan for staff and a detailed wildfire evacuation plan.

Rebecca Alty, the city's mayor, told councillors she'd sent a copy of the report to the N.W.T. government and had requested a meeting to discuss what to do next, since many of the recommendations called for coordination.

She said city staff would present an update in the fall about what has been done to address the recommendations.