Concerns linger in Fort Smith, N.W.T., about chaotic evacuation

Dana Ferguson, one of Fort Smith's councillors, stayed behind during the evacuation to help with the emergency. (Peter Sheldon/CBC - image credit)
Dana Ferguson, one of Fort Smith's councillors, stayed behind during the evacuation to help with the emergency. (Peter Sheldon/CBC - image credit)

It's been a big week for Fort Smith, N.W.T.

The town near the Alberta border welcomed home its roughly 2,600 residents on Sept. 18. Now open to the public, Highway 5 was only available for essential services for weeks and was closely monitored, with a police officer on standby.

"A lot of emotions travelling down this highway today," the attendant on duty told Trail's End staff as they travelled into the community last week.

An evacuation order was issued for the town in early August as a wildfire threatened the only route out of town. Now, more than a month later as the town remains under evacuation alert, questions and concerns remain about why the evacuation was so chaotic and why measures — like keeping grocery stores open — weren't originally in place.

There is a review underway, just like assessments being done in Hay River, Yellowknife and other communities affected by Canada's record wildfire year.

Dana Ferguson, a town councillor and community volunteer, remained in Fort Smith throughout the entire season.

"It just was a hot, dry season. We also had some close calls in May too," she said, adding if the wind didn't shift the right way back in the late spring it could have been a much different summer.

Ferguson was a lifeline for many evacuees fleeing other communities. As the owner and operator of Pelican Rapids Inn in Fort Smith, she came in contact with strangers from all walks of life.

"We had lots of helicopter people ... so I stayed initially," she said, adding her family had originally sent their own possessions to Hay River for safety just before residents there were forced to flee.

"I said, 'Don't worry, I'll catch up with you guys.' I stayed initially because I had people in the hotel. So I'm like, 'Well, you know, they'll have to get into their rooms. I'll have to check them in. I have to, you know, help them out. As soon as I get them sorted, I'll catch up with you.' But that never happened."

Adam McNab, the director of Fort Smith's protective services, took this photo during a reconnaissance flight. He said it's directly south of Fort Smith, and shows the finger of fire that is closest to the community.
Adam McNab, the director of Fort Smith's protective services, took this photo during a reconnaissance flight. He said it's directly south of Fort Smith, and shows the finger of fire that is closest to the community.

This photo taken during a reconnaissance flight directly south of Fort Smith shows the finger of fire closest to the community in early September. (Submitted by Adam McNab)

When the town's evacuation started, she joined other councillors helping people get on buses, creating manifests and helping with the logistics of making sure everyone got to safety in Hay River. Then, the next day, Hay River evacuated and roads closed as a wildfire roared across Highway 3.

"We had to re-evaluate how we were going to get people out. So we could only get people out by air. But then by Sunday — which we call that black Sunday or the bad Sunday — air traffic stopped, and buses, all the roads were shut down. And then everything shut down. And we just had to shelter in place here in Fort Smith."

At that point, communications had gone down to the town, part of a sweeping blackout across the South Slave and beyond. She couldn't even ask her family if they got to safety.

"I just assumed they drove out. So I thought they were safe. I didn't know that they didn't fly out or didn't drive out and that they were trapped at the airport," said Ferguson, adding they eventually got out by air. "And then they had a whole sequence of events occur for them that they told me about, which I was just like, 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry you had to go through that.'"

She had been busy making sure all of her guests were taken care of. Then they found out the fire was only three kilometres away.

"I did not sleep. Like, I [was] just lying there going, 'I hope someone wakes me up,'" she said as the days blurred together.

Then the battle was on to fight the encroaching flames. A unified command was set up, but uncertainties remained.

"Nothing was happening. The crews were gone. No one was working," said Ferguson. "I couldn't hear helicopters flying, like because everyone had pulled out, because the hospital pulled out and the power corp couldn't guarantee power. And what if there's no power? Then there's no water."

'If no lessons were learned, this was all for nothing'

Things recovered after about a week, and eventually people started being able to come back. She was reunited with her family, which she says was "just awesome" and full of hugs, kisses and happiness.

But she wants to see changes for the future to better sustain firefighting operations.

"There could have been a better form of communication from MACA (Municipal and Community Affairs) to business folks because there was a huge gap in what was needed to what was actually delivered," said Ferguson.

She questioned what would have happened if services like TDC Contracting hadn't been around.

"How would fuel have maintained?" What if I wasn't here — how would have all these pilots have slept? The grocery stores, where was their consideration?"

She thinks those conversations are now needed.

Adam McNab, the town's director of protective services, agrees.

"By and large, Fort Smith was very fortunate," he said from the community centre that was Fort Smith's shelter in place — or "last stand."

Adam Mcnab,  fire chief in Fort Smith, said given the fire danger, it's very concerning that people are setting off fireworks in the community.
Adam Mcnab, fire chief in Fort Smith, said given the fire danger, it's very concerning that people are setting off fireworks in the community.

Adam McNab, the director of protective services in Fort Smith, says they need to learn from this year's wildfire emergency. (Submitted by Mcnab )

The town lost a few buildings, but nothing like the devastation seen in other communities.

"There were a lot of long nights. We had folks kind of staying up and doing overnight watch to make sure that no fire ended up in the community while people were sleeping," he said. "So yeah, definitely there were some sleepless nights."

The lack of communication didn't help.

"That was probably one of the more difficult things to handle in a time when there was already so much uncertainty about what was happening out on the landscape with the wildfire and trying to co-ordinate getting people out safely, contacting folks that had already evacuated and co-ordinating ongoing evacuation," he said.

Now they are picking up the pieces, but want to make sure they are better prepared in the future.

"We'll absolutely be reviewing what we did," he said. "If no lessons were learned, this was all for nothing."