A shaky wildfire evacuation can't happen again, seniors group says


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

AVENS, a seniors' residence in Yellownife, pictured in 2019. (John Last/CBC – photo credit)

The AVENS Senior Community in Yellowknife says the NWT and the city need to be better prepared if a citywide evacuation occurs in the future.

AVENS staff faced “a continuous barrage of unforeseen and unexpected events” during the 2023 evacuation, the organization wrote in a new report, and it received little support from the city or territorial government to relocate 57 long-term care workers to Alberta.

“It's not about pointing fingers… but we should do that now. We shouldn’t wait too long, otherwise we will forget some of the most important points,” said Daryl Dolynny, CEO of AVENS.

“We have to talk about it. But more than that, together, as a community, and as everyone involved, we need to create a better, more solid plan so that if we're in this situation 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, describes planning glitches that forced AVENS into disarray in the weeks leading up to the evacuation, as well as logistical crises on the day of the evacuation.

Daryl Dolynny talks about the late Alfred Moses in Trailbreaker.Daryl Dolynny talks about the late Alfred Moses in Trailbreaker.

Daryl Dolynny talks about the late Alfred Moses in Trailbreaker.

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

AVENS first learned in late July that it would be responsible for all aspects of relocating its residents in the event of an evacuation, the report said.

When the evacuation was declared two weeks later, staff had developed a plan. However, their efforts to implement this plan were hampered by logistical and communications disruptions.

Dolynny said this included canceling the plane AVENS had secured to transfer residents to Edmonton – a key part of their plan. That's when the Canadian Forces attacked with a Hercules aircraft to get the seniors out.

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

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

“We were a little shocked from the beginning that we were forced into a situation where we were not, if I may use the word, taken care of or taken under the wing of the government during such a mass evacuation,” Dolynny said.

“When we're dealing with such a vulnerable sector, it's very difficult for a small nonprofit like AVENS to ensure that we have the depth – the strength, if you will – to do this successfully on our own do.” .”

CBC has reached out to the City of Yellowknife and the NWT government for comment.

City spokeswoman Abby Schelew confirmed that the city had received the AVENS report but said she was “not in a position to comment” on Friday.

NWT Health and Social Services spokesman Andrew Wind said the department was unable to provide an immediate response.

AVENS is not the first organization to call for change after the evacuation. In October, the Yellowknife Women's Society said many of its clients were left without support during the evacuation.