Yukon schools on shaky ground

The Yukon government has ordered some changes to eight schools after a study revealed they'd be at risk during an earthquake.

The Yukon government has ordered some changes to eight schools after a study revealed they’d be at risk during an earthquake.

The report by a Vancouver company describes Whitehorse Elementary, Wood Street, Selkirk, Takhini and Christ the King schools at moderate risk while Kluane Lake, Nelnah Bessie John and St. Elias were found to be at high risk.

“When measured against the current building code, high risk means there is a major deficiency in some portion of the structure in the event of a major earthquake in close proximity to the school building,” said Kendra Black, a spokesperson with Highways and Public Works.

The report is based on the 2010 national building code, she said.

A technical briefing to explain the findings in detail is scheduled for next week.

Risk levels are based on things like the age of the schools, a structural evaluation, how much the ground under the schools moves, and soil conditions, explained Black.

The calculations also take into account the high “importance factor” of a school that houses children and is used in emergencies.

The findings rank how much the school would move in the event of an earthquake.

The report was received by the government in September. It is a more extensive version of an earlier study completed in 2010.

Engineers recommend about $20 million worth of fixes to the schools at risk. In some cases this includes changes to the buildings’ roofs, walls and foundations, the report says.

Black said the government is taking some time to review those recommendations.

In the meantime the plan is to implement a “non-structural mitigation program” Black said.

“Evidence shows that most of the injuries in an earthquake are not from buildings collapsing, they are actually from non-structural risks.”

That could include things like bookshelves, suspended ceilings, or a building’s heating and ventilation system.

A contractor will visit the schools and ensure that anything that could fall inside a school is made safe, said Black.

“We are undertaking a non-structural mitigation program, which means we are going to go into the eight medium- and high-risk schools and fix all of those things,” Black said. “We’ll tie back the suspended ceilings and pipes and secure bookcases to the walls and tie down equipment.”

Tenders for the work will go out this winter. It is expected to be completed by the end of the school year, she said.

The government has not developed a budget for how much the work is going to cost.

“We could have taken a few months to figure out pricing and costs and get a total number. We’ve decided we’re just going to move forward,” Black said.

The work will mostly be done on evenings and weekends and not disrupt classes, she said.

Meanwhile the government has asked the Vancouver company for a prioritized list of the $20 million in fixes it is recommending.

Black notes that all eight of the schools in question are old and may be near the end of their lives.

The buildings were all built in the 1950s and ‘60s. The youngest school in the group is St. Elias Community School, built in 1963.

“Should we be replacing the school instead of spending more money is essentially part of what is being considered,” Black said.

That decision-making process is expected to take 18 months.

There are a few major fault lines in the territory, including the Denali and Duke River fault systems.

The schools that are listed as high risk are the closest ones to fault lines, Black said.

She pointed out that the schools have survived earthquakes in the past.

“All of our school buildings have withstood many earthquakes over the years and are expected to withstand many more. These are the same school buildings that our children attended yesterday. The risk is no greater today than it was before,” she said.

“The seismic risk is based on a two per cent chance of a major seismic earthquake in the next 50 years. So, we are talking about a fairly small probability, not a foregone conclusion.”

A similar seismic mitigation program has been happening in British Columbia for the last 13 years. The Department of Education has budgeted $2.2 billion to upgrade or replace 214 high-risk schools so far. It is anticipated it will cost a further $600 million to address the remaining 104 high-risk schools in the province.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com