Is Yukon prepared for a catastrophic wildfire? Fire chief says government won't share plans

"We assume that because no plans have been forwarded to us, no strategic plans for a response, no plans for prevention, that probably little is in place," said Golden Horn fire chief Charlie McLaren.

'It's fairly clear that the government does not see a major wildfire as a priority at this time'

A wildfire burns outside Dawson City, Yukon, in 2015. It's been several years since Yukon has seen a bad forest fire season, and some chalk that up to luck. (Andreas Pohle/ Yukon Wildland Fire Management )

A volunteer fire chief in Yukon is raising the alarm about wildfire risk, and says the territorial government is staying mum on its plans to deal with a major disaster.

"If you ask anybody in the fire business … what are the chances of a wildfire decimating a Yukon community, the answer won't be a percentage — it will be, 'it's just a matter of time,'" said Charlie McLaren, chief of the Golden Horn fire department outside of Whitehorse.

'It's fairly clear that the government does not see a major wildfire as a priority at this time,' said Charlie McLaren, chief of the Golden Horn fire department outside of Whitehorse. (Submitted by Charlie McLaren)

"We've been lucky ... the last few major fire years hit the Northwest Territories, Alaska, B.C., not us."

McLaren says Yukon's volunteer and rural fire chiefs have been raising their concerns for years, and asking the territorial government to share any plans to prevent or respond to a disastrous fire.

He's been frustrated by the response.

"I think it's fair to say we've had basically no response. To some extent, we're being stonewalled," he said.

"So, we assume that because no plans have been forwarded to us, no strategic plans for a response, no plans for prevention, that probably little is in place," he said.

McLaren says the government appears to have "bits and pieces" of a plan, but that's not good enough. He's afraid of Yukon being forced to deal with a situation similar to what Fort McMurray, Alta., experienced in 2016 — but without the same resources or support.

"It's fairly clear that the government does not see a major wildfire as a priority at this time," he said. 

Golden Horn firefighters do a training exercise. McLaren says volunteer firefighters regard house fires 'as the ignition source for forest fire.' (Submitted by Charlie McLaren)

'We're ready', says EMO director

Diarmuid O'Donovan, director of Yukon's Emergency Measures Organization, rejects that. He says the government has plans in place to deal with a major fire, and those plans are continually refined.

"I'm very confident that we're ready for what Mother Nature can bring," he said.

O'Donovan says territorial officials met with volunteer fire departments in January, and got "an awful lot of great feedback," including from McLaren. 

Battling a Yukon wildfire from above. (Yukon Wildland Fire Management)

O'Donovan calls Yukon's volunteer fire departments "the backbone of our firefighting capacity," and says tactical plans for wildfire scenarios have been shared with local fire officials.

At the same time, O'Donovan said the government doesn't think it's necessary that local fire chiefs and departments get all of the plans for emergency response

"The wider coordination of how the RCMP would move large groups of people out of a particular community, or how emergency medical services would respond by setting up triage stations — that doesn't necessarily have to go to all members of the emergency response community that would participate in the plan," he said.

McLaren still feels like he and other rural fire chiefs should be a little more in the loop. He said he's sent a four-page "discussion paper," outlining his concerns, and followed the January meeting with more notes, "saying, 'here's what I heard, here's what you committed to.'" 

"No response," he said.    

'Every scenario is going to be different'

O'Donovan also says it's not possible to come up with a firm, all-purpose plan, especially with respect to community evacuations. 

"Every scenario is going to be different, based on where the fire could be coming from, and the particular threat that we're dealing with," he said.

Yukon officials can't say exactly how communities might be evacuated in a disaster situation, because each scenario is different. (Andreas Pohle/Yukon Wildland Fire Management)

"I'm leery to say you must go to this school or this junction — that information will come through our emergency Alert Ready network, and through our partner agencies."

Community Services Minister John Streicker, questioned in the Legislative Assembly about planning evacuation routes, echoed O'Donovan.

"It is not possible ahead of time, to give every response. We will actively work to make sure that Yukoners are informed," Streicker said.

That's not good enough for McLaren, though. He's still got questions about fire prevention strategies, and how firefighting will be coordinated. He sees "lack of political will" to make the issue a priority.

"Rural fire chiefs generally view each house fire, which we're generally tasked with dealing with ... as the ignition source for forest fire," he said.

"The government as a whole needs to look at this as a very serious problem. It's a problem that's possibly on a short timeline — we don't know."

With files from Sandi Coleman and Priscilla Hwang

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