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Yukonomist: Some pointed reminders on Whitehorse wildfire risk

“There but for the grace of God go we,” as the old saying goes.

“There but for the grace of God go we,” as the old saying goes.

Wildfires have killed people, destroyed buildings and up-ended lives in an alarming range of places across the Yukon, the northwest and abroad this summer.

The News headlined evacuations in Old Crow and Mayo.

KUAC Fairbanks reported on out-of-control wildfires near Delta Junction, closing in on the Richardson Highway and even jumping over the Alaska pipeline right-of-way.

The Yellowknifer reported moving scenes from evacuations as wildfires raged towards Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Hay River.

The Kelowna Capital News covered dramatic scenes of wildfires burning towards the city at night, plus fires in Penticton and Shuswap communities.

By the time you read this, things may have gotten worse in some of these communities.

And all that was on the heels of earlier scenes of wildfires sweeping through Lahaina, Hawaii, forcing some people to jump into the ocean to escape.

A month earlier, closer to Whitehorse, the Takhini Bridge fire burned for two weeks and threatened the Alaska Highway for a while before being declared under control on July 25.

We should reflect on the sacrifice of the firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty already this summer, those still in harm’s way and everyone else affected.

We should also reflect that, short of Whitehorse itself being in the headlines, it is hard to think of a more pointed reminder that the same thing could happen here.

The good news is that this is not a new issue for us. The News archives have stories going back to the 2002 Firesmart plan for Whitehorse. The City of Whitehorse currently has a 2021-24 Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy and Action Plan as well as a 2020 Public Safety Protection Plan covering evacuations. The Crisis Communications Plan, which includes wildfire contingencies, was updated in 2022.

The city’s wildfire plan has four goals: improve organization preparedness, including coordination with other governments; encourage and require FireSmart principles on private property; remove forest fuel from public land; and enable wood collection for heating to remove fuel from around Whitehorse neighbourhoods.

The territorial government’s webpage on Community Wildfire Protection Plans says it is “helping the City of Whitehorse to implement” its current plan.

The plan notes that “wildfire risk reduction and large-scale removal of forest resource have not previously been areas of work for the city.” It goes on to list 12 action items. The city is also working on various other initiatives, including the Mary Lake and Copper Haul Road fuel breaks.

I asked city officials for an update on progress on the 12 action items. Action 1 was to identify a lead department for the wildfire issue, which will be parks and community development. A new FireSmart coordinator has been hired. The upcoming review of the zoning bylaw will consider Actions 3 and 5, which include items such as requiring FireSmart principles on properties close to forested areas. Other actions are in various stages of progress.

While the city’s wildfire, evacuation and communications plans include many useful initiatives and good work, the Yellowknife evacuation revealed how huge and complicated a task it is to evacuate an isolated capital city’s entire population. This means it is now time for leaders in Whitehorse’s four governments to take a step back and ask themselves if their organizations are as ready to leap into action in as decisive and coordinated a way as they need to be.

These are the questions I would ask.

First, if a big fire broke out south of town tomorrow, which individuals are on the leadership team from the Yukon, Whitehorse, Kwanlin Dün and Ta’an Kwäch’än governments and have these individuals met recently to discuss how they would work together on a wildfire? This includes political leaders and officials across the highways, police, health, wildfire and other departments. Who makes what decisions and what is the chain of command?

Second, in the last year, have these individuals got out their governments’ wildfire contingency plans and war-gamed a real fire situation together? This is a key activity, since such exercises reveal hiccups and what planners call “unknown unknowns.” Issues big and small may emerge. For example, where will 30,000 Whitehorse residents sleep the night after they are evacuated? Who will run the emergency gasoline supply when several thousand vehicles try to refuel simultaneously in Haines Junction? Or who has the phone number to call the Canadian air force to help medevac dozens of hospital patients?

Third, where is the list of community volunteers and who is responsible to build up and maintain this list? Canada’s military is notoriously underfunded, and fires in other regions may prevent neighbouring provinces from sending help. Do we have a plan to tap into the energy and ingenuity of Yukoners?

The Yellowknifer reported on local teamwork to build a 25-kilometre firebreak on the city’s west side, quoting Chris Greencorn, Yellowknife’s director of public works: “The city would never have been able to accomplish this – or a fraction of it – without our friends in the contracting and volunteer community.”

Fourth, are we doing what we need to be doing today to minimize our future risk? For example, does the FireSmarting budget need more money? Should we do some deliberate burns to bolster the fuel breaks south of town? Or should the proposals in the action plan around bylaws requiring Firesmarting of properties on the forest edge be accelerated?

Wildfire preparation is not a popular task. You can imagine what homeowners might say if the city began enforcing its maintenance bylaw, as contemplated in Action 4 of its plan. Currently, according to the letter of the law, “every owner or occupier shall clear their property of brush, trees, or other growth that constitutes a fire or health hazard.” Nor is anyone allowed to store more than two winter’s worth of firewood on their property.

But, as with buying insurance, it’s useful to think about how you will feel about your decision if the bad news happens.

It’s as simple as going on Youtube and watching the footage from Yellowknife.

Or, if you really want to soak in the grim statistics, talk to the wildfire awareness committee or read the wildfire risk identification and analysis report submitted to the City of Whitehorse by David Loeks, Al Beaver and Brad Armitage in 2019.

The report calculates a Fire Weather Index (FWI) based on the forest fuel dryness, wind speed and direction. They believe an FWI of 35 or above is a danger zone, where “fire suppression effectiveness becomes increasingly negligible for fires that have reached an equilibrium rate of spread.”

From 1990 to 2018, there were on average 8.1 days a year where the FWI went over 35. In some years, there can be over 20 such days. The highest FWI in Whitehorse during that period was 69.8. They point out that this is higher than the FWI of 47 in Fort MacMurray, Alberta, the day fire swept into that city.

So, simplifying the statistics, you could say that Whitehorse is rolling the dice each summer. Sooner or later, a fire will get started upwind of the city on a day when the Fire Weather Index is over 35.

We can’t prevent that from happening. But we can prepare now to reduce the damage.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.