Mushroom-shaped clouds with a helicopter carrying a water bucket dancing through them were the first sign that the NWT was in trouble.
The drive from High Level had been uneventful until we hit the ‘Smoke’ sign about 20 km south of Enterprise. You wouldn’t have guessed that the North had been in a fight for its life for more than a month until you saw the clouds.
Just beyond the sign the first blackened tree trunks, or what was left of them, appeared. Then to the side of the road, we see a group of firefighters preparing to battle the hotspots threatening the highway. The firefighters were from Quebec, here until the end of the week replacing those that had just left for Yukon.
With the heat and rising winds, it was clear their work was cut out for them.
Charred remains increased as we approached Enterprise with nothing left but miles of charcoal covered trees; the sorrow and sadness of the loss of that community and our beloved North deeply affected all of us.
Though the wildfire that wiped out 90 per cent of Enterprise happened quickly, the climate change catastrophe was years in the making. We knew this was coming, we just were not sure when or how bad it would be. Scientists had been saying for two decades that the North would be impacted four times more by the impacts than any other region in the world but we ignored them.
Though the North had suffered devastating fires in 2014, no fire breaks, no protocol and no preparations were in place to offset this event. We were not prepared.
We now know that the GNWT and the city, though they had nine years grace, shared the same one-word evacuation plan: Run! That everyone made it out of Yellowknife safely was a miracle considering the time the evacuation order was called (7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening), sending many racing down the highway. That no one collided with the bison was miraculous.
We need a public inquiry and public hearing into who knew what and when. We need to hear peoples’ stories. We need to debrief. We need to learn from this and prepare for another fire season which could be next spring when the hibernating fire emerges. Avoidance is not working.
We are on an emotional rollercoaster as we approach Enterprise witnessing the remains of everything except the iron trapper and Gateway Gas.
To our delight, the station is open with manager Meika McDonald working the till. Though the stress of the summer is evident on her face, seeing her there is our first ray of hope.
There has been much discussion about who our everyday heroes were during the summer fires. One of them is Ernie, with his flatbed truck driving up and down the wounded landscape. He is helping motorists who might otherwise be stranded in the smoke and embers. He is here filling his truck flashing a warm grin, reminding us of the true face of the Northern spirit.
So many left quickly in vehicles that were not road ready with fingers crossed they would make it to safety. They had acted according to the constantly confusing messages coming from the GNWT and city and suitcases full of uncertainty and fear.
Though we can be grateful for hotel accommodation, food and eventually gas money, many were flown to large centers where they found it almost impossible to get around. Bus routes were long and evacuation centers scattered. Some people spent entire days riding city transit to find meals.
All of this could have been addressed in a formal evacuation plan which was talked about but never revealed. Let’s hope that something more transparent is in the making.
In the meantime, Premier Caroline Cochrane told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that she is angry there has not been enough money for infrastructure, which would have made this evacuation easier. Well, we are angry too. If the territory would have focused more on mitigating the effects of climate change and developing an economy that was not based on environmentally-destructive industry, maybe we could have avoided some of what ensued. But we didn’t.
We had years to bang on the federal government’s door asking for more support, but we failed. And when the federal government tried to impose a federal carbon tax to reduce carbon emissions, almost all of the MLAs balked. We were not prepared to take a single step to slow the increasing effect of climate change. We couldn’t even ban plastic bags.
McDonald is shy when asked for a picture, but I tell her she doesn’t understand. Providing service now, just like Ernie, gives us all hope and hints that the North will rise again. It’s one flower blooming among many that were lost.
It is not politicians who made the day during this event, but the acts of everyday people who offered kindness and generosity when we were at our emotional wits end. It was the people who posted endlessly trying to find lost pets (Ella are you out there?) or looking for elders separated from loved ones. It was people who prepared meals and delivered them to hotels or taxied people lost in busy cities. It was those who stayed behind to make sure our city was protected as best as it could be.
Thank goodness an election is around the corner. Thank goodness we have an opportunity to redirect would-be politicians to those things that really matter – dealing with climate change — which they have ignored for far too long putting us all at risk. Any candidate who does not have climate change as a priority should be ignored. Climate change didn’t even make this government’s top 10 priority list.
We either listen or the planet will force us to do that.
Let’s hope we finally get it.
-Nancy Vail is a longtime Yellowknifer concerned with social justice.