“We aren’t capable of protecting every value out there.”
– Frank Lepine, the GNWT department’s director of forest management, on saving buildings.
Everyone was able to escape unharmed, as a forest fire leaped towards them in the near distance.
Not only lives were at risk but also a cherished family fishing lodge on Harding Lake, about 50 kilometres east of Yellowknife.
The lodge owner was not warned to flee before that fire destroyed Namushka Lodge in July 2016.
To this day, Bryan Chorostkowski remains skeptical the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has learned from the experience.
The lodge had 21 guests at its fly-in location when a wildfire swept through on July 15. The fire began a day earlier near Pickerel Lake, roughly 12 kilometres to the northwest.
By 7:15 p.m., the wildfire had jumped a fire break in the woods near the lodge and people fled the flames by boat.
An independent review concluded Environment and Natural Resources had “inadequate” communications with people whose property was at risk and recommended “significant communications improvements.”
The department, its forest fire crews, and assisting crews from out of territory deserve credit, after the 2014 forest fire season in particular — one of the worst on record, consuming 34,000 square kilometres of forest — with not a single loss of life. Their spectacular defence of Kakisa that year was nothing short of heroic.
But there are still lessons to be learned.
Much like in 2014 when a forest fire destroyed a family homestead on the Hoarfrost River, the Namuska fire was flagged by someone — in this case, Chorostkowski’s brother — concerned about the approaching fire but nothing was done to save the lodge.
Ahead of the upcoming fire season, the territorial government is trying to gather more contact information for people who have properties in the bush. But there are hundreds and hundreds of cabins, lodges and camps in the territory
Ahead of what could be a “very difficult” forest fire season, the territorial government now has some new fire-fighting equipment. Eight new Air Tractor 802A FireBoss amphibious water bomber aircraft have arrived in the territory over the past several weeks.
The aircraft, at about $3.5 million each, replace four GNWT-owned CL-215 planes that will be sold off. Four of the planes will be based in Yellowknife while the other four will be in Fort Smith.
The water bombers arrived as a long-term forecast developed with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Canadian Forest Service predicts a warm and dry summer in the southern part of the territory.
Areas that “look like they may be trouble” are the Deh Cho and parts of the South and North Slave regions, he said.
In fact, the fire danger in Fort Simpson was listed as high for several days last week and into the weekend of May 20. Though only one small wildfire has been reported so far in the territory. That was near Inuvik.
So what can the GNWT and you do to stay safe this spring and summer?
Basic precautions such as FireSmarting your property and knowing your community’s emergency plan are good starting points.
And according to the report into the Namushka Lodge blaze, the GNWT must improve communications and use computer software that can predict fire growth in real-time. The GNWT also needs to be able to source a fire behavior analyst when needed and generally update training for staff – this just to satisfy previous recommendations for improvement.
Frank Lepine, the department’s director of forest management, acknowledged problems during the Namushka fire.
“It’s possible we could have done a better job and we’re always trying to do a better job.”
If the government believes it has the ability to do a better job in these life or death situations, then it is a goal that must be pursued. The government has a duty to do whatever it can to protect the people. It’s just common sense that in a territory so vast with people spread out so sparsely that every lodge or cabin can’t be protected from wildfires.
But surely the human beings can be.