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'We have to talk about this': Shaky wildfire evacuation can't happen again, says seniors group

AVENS, a seniors residence in Yellownife, pictured in 2019. (John Last/CBC - image credit)
AVENS, a seniors residence in Yellownife, pictured in 2019. (John Last/CBC - image credit)

The AVENS seniors community in Yellowknife says it, the N.W.T. and the city all need to be better prepared if a future city-wide evacuation happens.

AVENS staff faced "a continual barrage of unforeseen and unanticipated events" throughout the evacuation in 2023, the organization wrote in a new report, and it received little support from the city or the territorial government to relocate 57 long-term care residents to Alberta.

"It's not about pointing fingers ... but we should be doing this now. We shouldn't wait for a very long period of time, because you'll start to forget some of the key points," said AVENS CEO Daryl Dolynny.

"We have to talk about this. But moreover, we've got to create a better and more robust plan collectively, as a community, as all stakeholders, so that if we're in this position again, we don't make the same mistakes twice. We can't afford that."

The report, which is an abridged version of a longer internal report, outlines planning breakdowns that forced AVENS to scramble in the weeks before the evacuation, and logistical crises the day of the evacuation.

Daryl Dolynny on the Trailbreaker talking about the late Alfred Moses.
Daryl Dolynny on the Trailbreaker talking about the late Alfred Moses.

Daryl Dolynny is the CEO of AVENS. (Jared Monkman/CBC)

AVENS first learned at the end of July that it would be responsible for all aspects of moving its residents in the event of an evacuation, the report states.

When the evacuation was called two weeks later, staff had pulled together a plan. But their efforts to implement that plan were hampered by logistical and communication breakdowns.

Dolynny said that included the cancellation of the plane AVENS had secured to shuttle residents to Edmonton — a key part of their plan. At that point, the Canadian Armed Forces stepped in with a Hercules aircraft to get the seniors out.

The report outlines 31 recommendations, including renegotiating its service contract with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority to explicitly address similar situations in the future. It also suggests the health authority should take the lead on future evacuations.

Another suggestion is that the territorial government expand its emergency plan to clarify who is responsible for evacuating vulnerable populations.

"We were from the very onset a bit shell-shocked that we were thrust into a position where we were not being, if I can use the word, taken care of or put under the wing of the government in such a mass evacuation," Dolynny said.

"When we are dealing with such a vulnerable sector, it is very difficult for a small not-for-profit organization like AVENS to make sure that we have the depth — the bench strength, if you will — to do this successfully on our own."

CBC has reached out to the City of Yellowknife and the N.W.T. government for comment.

City spokesperson Abby Schelew confirmed the city had received the AVENS report, but said it "is not in a position to comment on it" Friday.

N.W.T. Health and Social Services spokesperson Andrew Wind said the department would not be able to provide a response right away.

AVENS isn't the first organization to call for change in the wake of the evacuation. In October, the Yellowknife Women's Society said many of its clients were left stranded without support during the evacuation.