Whitehorse residents can expect to hear a lot about emergency preparedness in the coming weeks.
City officials highlighted plans for an upcoming public awareness campaign during a council and administrative roundtable held March 24.
Over the course of the roundtable discussion, fire chief Jason Everitt noted the city’s procedures in dealing with emergencies and how the emergency operations centre is run during a larger emergency event, such as when there was the last summer.
Everitt emphasized the importance of communications in emergency events, highlighting council’s role in ensuring the city’s message reaches as many as possible.
To that end, Everitt and city spokesperson Myles Dolphin highlighted the plans for the upcoming campaign, noting there will be emphasis on getting people to sign up for Whitehorse Alert, a notification system that lets residents and other people know about emergency situations in and near the community. There are currently more than 1,000 signed on to the service that can deliver notifications by text, cell or landline.
A test of the system will be done on April 14.
The campaign will also see a number of other initiatives.
“We have a crisis communications plan, as well, that you can find on our website,” Dolphin said. “We’re going to promote the plan, of course to let residents know exactly what’s inside it and what you can expect from it.”
Information on the 72-hour emergency preparedness kit, key areas of risk, what to do in the event of an emergency and how to care for pets and livestock in such situations will also be part of the campaign.
The roundtable discussion on emergency measures followed a presentation at council’s March 21 meeting where Dave Loeks highlighted what he believes the city should do to address the risk of a wildfire in the city.
Loeks was speaking as a private citizen, but worked as a consultant on a 2020 strategy about the risk of wildfire in Whitehorse that Whitehorse city council adopted in November that year.
Loeks cited figures showing a probability of 55 per cent that a wildfire could ignite near the city on an extreme fire weather day, with an 83 per cent likelihood that a wildfire would begin in the south.
He argued the city needs to treat the entire community rather than treating it piecemeal, highlighting the potential risk that could result in a similar situation to the Fort McMurray, Alta. fires of 2016.
“You either accept the risk and you do nothing or you do effective things,” he said, going on to suggest the city implement the 2020 strategy.
“And what that amounts to is you take away the fuel from the surrounding forest and you take it away from exposed properties.”
Loeks proposed four initiatives to the city over the next couple of years to address the risk. Those include making the Whitehorse General Hospital a safe zone so it would not need to be evacuated, as he argued there’s no credible way to evacuate the building; moving forward with FireSmarting throughout Whitehorse (including converting wooded areas to more aspen and hardwood trees); completing an evacuation plan for the city; and putting a focus on installing biomass heating systems as a way of marketing trees removed for FireSmarting.
Answering questions from council at Thursday’s roundtable, Everitt confirmed that for institutions like the hospital, provisions to help shelter in place are up to the owner of the institution, though the fire department will assist in providing guidance if requested on ways to do that.
He also noted there are plans in place to deal with evacuations — both neighbourhoods and city-wide — including locations where those without vehicles could go to where transportation would be provided.
Everitt emphasized the importance of communications in such emergencies, highlighting social media, Whitehorse Alert (which does not require internet or a cell phone) and media in keeping people up to date.
He noted that if power, phone and internet are disrupted, emergency officials would resort to “boots on the ground” — door knocking — to help ensure public safety.
Speaking for FireSmarting plans, he noted along with annual work, the city has applied for federal funding that would allow for the hiring of a FireSmart coordinator to focus solely on that work over a three-year term.
It’s not known when the city will hear back on that application.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org