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Banff evacuation planning considered 'advanced'

“Wildfire risk and evacuation issues are an extremely high level of concern in the community."

BANFF – Evacuation of thousands of residents and visitors from the south side of the Bow River in Banff on the busiest of summer days is expected to take about three hours.

The evaluation of vehicle data and the transportation network also suggested the downtown pedestrian zone would have little to no effect on evacuation of an estimated 8,500-9,800 people and 3,500-4,000 vehicles on peak days from the south side.

However, Town of Banff officials cautioned there were limitations to the transportation data assessment, and while useful to inform evacuation planning, it does not reflect the actual time needed for all the actions and decision-making preceding an evacuation order.

“No time is good or bad without knowing further parameters within an evacuation scenario,” said Katherine Severson, director of emergency services for the Town of Banff.

“It is important to note that evacuation preparation activities in Banff would be characterized as advanced.”

Increasing severe fire behaviour associated with climate change across Canada and around the world is increasing Banff residents’ concerns and fears over time to evacuate, particularly on the south side given traffic congestion due to bottleneck at the bridge and Buffalo Street-Banff Avenue intersection.

A prescribed fire that got out of control near the townsite last May before it was brought under control, combined with Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season last year, have simply added to residents’ anxiety.

Severson said the existing Banff evacuation planning documents are being reviewed within the context of a few, most probable emergencies such as wildfire, flood, derailment of train carrying hazardous goods, and extreme weather with long-term power interruption.

She said emergency services recognize there are circumstances when the time available to evacuate areas of town may not be sufficient given the hazard, noting those worse case scenarios are the focus of ongoing contingency planning and mitigations.

“Wildfire risk and evacuation issues are an extremely high level of concern in the community,” said Severson, a member of Canada Task Force 2 since 2016 who was deployed to Yellowknife and the Nova Scotia wildfires last year.

“We share this concern with residents and visitors and it is absolutely one of our highest priorities when it comes to emergency planning.”

The review of the transportation and traffic data was presented to Banff’s governance and finance committee on Monday (Feb. 26) following ongoing concerns expressed by residents about wildfire hazards and evacuation preparedness.

Administration used parking stall counts, municipal and federal census data, Roam ridership numbers, and consulted with Parks Canada, Pursuit, Banff Springs and Rimrock Hotels to come up with a conservative estimate of the maximum number of vehicles on the south side.

It is estimated that on the busiest of summer days, 8,500- 9,800 people and 3,500-4,000 vehicles could be on the south side and would need to get across the Bow River bridge and through the Buffalo Street-Banff Avenue intersection.

The Banff Avenue bridge over the Bow River is an identified significant bottleneck for traffic that requires traffic management in non-emergency conditions already, which the municipality calls a “transportation vulnerability.”

Traffic data indicates that under normal road conditions and traffic signal timings 800 vehicles per hour can travel northbound across the bridge and through the Banff Avenue-Buffalo Street intersection on a peak summer afternoon.

Furthermore, during a three-minute green override cycle in the traffic light system, 70 vehicles have been counted passing through that intersection, equating to 1,400 vehicles per hour travelling northbound.

For an evacuation of the south side, the tactical traffic plan includes an extra northbound lane on the bridge, and the use of flaggers to direct traffic to both east and west on Buffalo Street as well as down Banff Avenue.

Stephen Allan, engineering coordinator for the Town of Banff, said this configuration plan and data gives administration confidence that 1,400 vehicles per hour could be pushed across the bridge and through the intersection.

“The 1,400 vehicles per hour correspond to three hours to move all estimated vehicles across the bridge – and we are very conservative with these estimates,” he said.

“That doesn’t take into account the bussing, transportation side of things, but it’s a useful piece of information to feed into the planning.”

Some Banff residents have expressed concern that the seasonal Banff Avenue pedestrian zone has not been adequately evaluated. Specifically, they are worried it will increase the time it takes for evacuation of the south side of the Bow River.

In response, the engineering department analyzed the data to try to understand what effect the seasonal pedestrian zone would have on the vehicle capacity and flow on the Banff Avenue-Buffalo Street intersection.

Comparing traffic volumes from the busiest days in 2023 with and without a pedestrian zone, Allan said the data indicated that on days with similar daily volumes, peak hourly northbound volumes were seven per cent or 53 vehicles per hour in December when there was no pedestrian zone.

Although this data set is limited, and more data in 2024 will improve the municipality’s level of confidence, Allan said it suggests a slight reduction in bridge and intersection capacity with a pedestrian zone in place of about one vehicle per minute.

However, he said with the evacuation traffic management strategies and rapidly opening the access gates to the transit lane through the pedestrian zone to provide another lane of traffic, administration is confident pedestrian zone would have “little to no effect on a south side evacuation timeline.”

“We think the pedestrian zone has a slight reduction, like a seven per cent reduction, in intersection capacity, but it’s not a significant one,” he said.

Banff has detailed plans for the notification and transportation phases of evacuation, and easily accessible resident preparedness, including a full evacuation guide, linked through the Town of Banff’s website at

While the transportation part of getting people out of town in an emergency is the last of six phases in Banff’s evacuation plans, the first is detection, which is largely the responsibility of Parks Canada in close partnership with Alberta Wildfire.

Following that, Severson said any decision to evacuate the townsite rests with the Town of Banff.

“Often in case of evacuation, a state of local emergency will be declared and with that would be a mandatory evacuation,” said Severson.

“It’s also important to note there would be occasions where in a very small time window and high risk to the town, there might not be time to declare a state of local emergency, in which case we would still be issuing an evacuation order and asking residents to leave.”

Thirdly, an alarm would be issued, which in Banff includes the Alberta Emergency Alert for a mandatory evacuation followed by the municipality’s Voyent alert system.

The fourth phase of excavation is reaction, which is considered perhaps the most unpredictable and complex of the evacuation phases.  In fires in B.C. and Alberta last year, there were residents who defied evacuation orders as wildfires approached their communities.

“Certainly over history we’ve seen a broad amount of reactions,” said Severson.

“It’s part of the planning to anticipate what our residents and business may do when we notify them that it is time to go.”

Depending on the time and hazard, residents and visitors may also be moved to an area of refuge or an assembly station.

“This could refer to anything from where we would gather people who didn’t have a mode of transport to leave all the way to areas of refuge within our community,” said Severson.

Mayor Corrie DiManno said the Town of Banff is doing everything to ensure Banff is prepared as possible in the event of a community-wide emergency.

She also pointed to a FireSmart forum, which will include demonstrations, speakers and resources available for residents, to be hosted by the Town of Banff and Parks Canada on May 7.

DiManno said she knows the community is on high alert after events from around Canada and the world last summer, including the out-of-control prescribed fire outside of the townsite last May.

“I get it – the fear and the anxiety is real,” she said. “How could it not be when you live in a national park surrounded by forest with hotter and drier summers in the midst of a changing climate?”

But the mayor said residents need to shift their mindset from avoidance to anticipation and acceptance of impacts.

She said more than ever, residents need to trust the experts, the tactical teams, and the professionals who live and breathe this work.

“I will not stand for fear-mongering, spreading of misinformation, or openly and publicly discrediting experts,” she said.

“Asking tough questions and having uncomfortable conversations – yes, but telling experts you don’t believe them or that you don’t believe the plans they prepare are adequate – this behaviour needs to stop right now.”

DiManno said the Town of Banff and Parks Canada take part in regular joint training exercises on structure and perimeter protection and fuel modification.

She said together they continue to test systems, improve communication and build capacity for responding to emergencies such as wildfires.

“We strengthen our plans from lessons learned,” she said.

Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA) is launching an emergency preparedness series for Banff National Park businesses, starting with an industry workshop led by retired Banff fire chief Silvio Adamo on March 26 for businesses to refresh and update emergency management plans.

Other initiatives will include government-led sessions so businesses can learn from each other about their respective plans, workforce initiatives to aid in resident preparedness, and a crisis communications seminar tailored specifically to the tourism industry.

“Investing in our collective preparedness with an all-hazards approach is our best defence to help our destination navigate through an emergency and ensure our future resilience,” said Wanda Bogdane, BLLHA’s executive director.
Severson said being prepared in the event of an emergency is the responsibility of everyone, including residents who are all encouraged to sign up for Voyent alerts.

She said residents can also take advantage of several municipal incentives to better protect their properties such as rooftop sprinklers and conifer tree replacement program.

“Another example is the idea of having a 72-hour kit prepared and ready to go,” said Severson.

The Banff evacuation guide can be found at and Frequently Asked Questions about evacuation procedures can be found at:

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