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Yukonomist: Fort Nelson fire is another wake-up call for Yukoners

Northern B.C.'s early start to fire season should be a lesson heeded closely
Yukonomist Keith Halliday

You won’t be able to say you weren’t warned.

In case you’ve been pressing the FireSmart snooze button after last year’s wildfires in Yellowknife, Hay River or Delta Junction, the big fire near Fort Nelson is another wake-up call.

As is the evacuation for Fort McMurray a few days ago.

The Fort Nelson fire had a second message too: expect the unexpected. Fires burned through two different Northwestel cables, near Fort Nelson and Kakisa respectively. This plunged the Yukon into digital darkness.

In some ways the weekend in Whitehorse was worse than it would have been thirty years ago, when people carried cash and everyone had a basic but nearly indestructible landline in their home. Instead, this time, if you needed emergency assistance, there were signs telling you to drive to ambulances pre-positioned at places like the Qwanlin Mall.

People with Starlink were still watching Netflix and the gas stations and electricity still worked. I suspect our infrastructure people are calling Elon Musk or his competitors to get satellite triple backup for our communications system, but the episode reminds us that a wildfire evacuation might hit unexpected potholes.

The Fort Nelson fire also reminds us how quickly things can happen. The BC Wildfire Service said on X, formerly Twitter, that the fire was detected on Friday. By Saturday, Mayor Rob Fraser was in the national news, telling Canadian Press that most of Fort Nelson’s 3,500 residents had been evacuated.

In case the millions of dry spruce and pine trees around Whitehorse doesn’t convince you, the wildfire risk identification and analysis report submitted to the City of Whitehorse in 2019 by Dave Loeks, Al Beaver and Brad Armitage makes it clear that Whitehorse faces the same risk factors as Fort McMurray or Fort Nelson.

The report calculates a Fire Weather Index, or FWI, based on the dryness of the forest, wind speed and wind direction. An index over 35 is considered dangerous. From 1990 to 2018 there averaged 8.1 such days per year in Whitehorse, and the index even hit 69.8 one day.

That’s higher than the index value of 47 in Fort McMurray the day its catastrophic wildfire swept into that city.

There are three things to plan for: keeping your family safe, protecting your property and helping your community.

To keep your family (and your pets) safe, the Yukon government’s website recommends three things: know the risks, make a plan and make a kit. You should also check out the City of Whitehorse emergency management website.

Your plan should include things like knowing the escape routes from your neighbourhood, backup meeting places in case your house is off limits, backup caregivers for the kids and how to communicate if cell service is down.

The website also has lists for a “go bag” to prepare in advance. It recommends you be ready for “at least 72 hours without power or running water.” Food, lots of water and medications are critical, as are things like a handcrank radio and flashlight. You’ll also want to make a list of things to grab on your way out of the house, like passports.

You’ll also want to keep a stash of cash and a gas tank that is at least half full. It would not be a terrible idea to have a jerry can of gas in the garage.

To stay in touch with the news, in addition to the handcrank radio or the radio in your truck, you should also register for the City of Whitehorse’s alert system. Google Whitehorse Alert to sign up. 

The authorities also like to use Facebook, Instagram, X and other social media platforms, even though not everyone uses those. If you have cell coverage, you can always suspend your social media cleanse for the duration of the emergency.

Protecting your property will require some work. has good tips. One thing to keep in mind is that giant fires are huge walls of flame. They are so hot that embers soar into the sky and — because these things happen on windy days — fly kilometres ahead.

So don’t assume that firebreaks or rivers will stop showers of red hot embers from falling on your house. Old, dry cedar shingles will turn into kindling. So will that old pine beside the front window or the firewood stacked by the backdoor. Embers will fall into eavestroughs full of dry pine needles. Or they will bang into your outer wall, then fall onto your deck or that nice-looking resinous shrubbery, and set the place on fire. includes practical advice on which trees to cut down, what items to remove from your house’s fire zone and how to deal with things you can’t move like wooden decks.

The third thing is how to help your community.

The minimum is to not be a burden on your fellow citizens. Try not to be the person who doesn’t have a plan, has no water or food, or runs out of gas in the middle of the Marsh Lake bridge.

Some readers will have skills that will be useful in an emergency. A contact in Yellowknife tells me that, in that emergency, contractors with earth-moving equipment were quickly given contracts to help with firebreaks.

One of the problems my Yellowknife contact mentioned was that their plan involved evacuating everyone. For example, 911 shut down before the official evacuation because key staff had already evacuated. This left contractors and volunteers unsupported.

My contact’s first day volunteering involved making 200 sandwiches, since the kitchen staff and grocery store staff had evacuated. One volunteer who stayed happened to own a gas station and organized refuelling.

Neither the Whitehorse Emergency Management Plan nor the city’s 2021-24 wildfire action plan mention volunteers or contractors, and I am not aware of any pre-planning of pre-selected contractors or a volunteer corps here, but if you have equipment and skills, then you might start thinking how you could help if called upon. That would include providing for fuel and food.

Of course, there may be no serious wildfires in the Yukon this summer. But you won’t regret the time spent getting prepared if the big one does hit.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and the winner of the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist. His most recent book Moonshadows, a Yukon-noir thriller, is available in Yukon bookstores.