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Notes From The Trail: Wildfire volunteers deserve every praise for protecting us

We have lived vicariously through our volunteers fighting fires and doing the safety work desperately needed to protect communities in the NWT.
Workers scramble to fuse a water pipe to operate sprinklers as part of a massive fire break being constructed around Yellowknife. This was one example of people pulling together to protect the city as wildfires bore down. Photo courtesy of Chris Greencorn

We have lived vicariously through our volunteers fighting fires and doing the safety work desperately needed to protect communities in the NWT.

Many of us wished we would have stayed to help but left as we were told in the confusing early days of the evacuation.

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And once we were in the south and learned about the efforts of these volunteers, some of us tried unsuccessfully to return. We wanted to help, too. We were told we couldn’t and accepted that.

Nevertheless, those working the frontlines became our heroes doing what we could not. We followed pictures posted by Chris Greencorn showing crews putting in 12-hour days doing everything from cutting brush to building fire guards and emptying garbage to deter wildlife. We even have friends who picked vegetables from maturing gardens or emptying fridges taking fresh greens to kitchens for frontline workers.

Almost all of us shared a deep sense of gratitude. Make no mistake — many in the south were working hard too, preparing and delivering meals, offering guidance, transporting people or providing resource referrals — we tried to do our part. But our eyes were glued to those protecting our land back home.

It came as something of a shock then to hear the letter from the City of Yellowknife offering a curt thank you to volunteers followed by what seemed to be an equally curt dismissal. It was like a slap in the face to those we admired most. The message lacked the appreciation most of us here hold for the work and long hours so freely given.

Worse, the dismissal came a day after a returning public official suggested that there was no sense of urgency. The majority of us were glad to hear that they were enjoying some free time after their efforts. We knew that some had sent their own families south, missed children’s birthdays and left partners to act as single parents while putting in 10- or 12-hour days doing tough stuff. It was a mental health break we were glad they could enjoy. No wonder Mayor Rebecca Alty was mad at the criticism. So were we.

Nevertheless, the next day, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said, “Now that we have completed the fire protection work and the situation has stabilized, we have reviewed the number of people required to assist with any remaining tasks. As a result of this assessment, we have determined that we no longer require the same level of support and will be reducing the size of the team.

“This also means that the city will be scaling back support and will no longer be providing meals or other support to you as a volunteer. This change will let us make the most of our limited resources to continue with the first responder effort. We thank you for your contributions to our efforts and encourage you to take this time to get some well-deserved rest.”

We were shocked by the tone.

Were gift cards offered as a show of gratitude? Handshakes? Any sign of goodwill, or were people just pushed out the door?

It is good to see at least one city councillor is taking issue with this. Let’s hope others will too.

Volunteers need to know that Northerners sheltering in the south are deeply grateful for your efforts, even though you failed to receive the accolades you deserved back home. You were an inspiration to us.

You willingly stayed to protect the community and we know you would have willingly left if it meant that that would help another.

It is a week later, and conditions have changed and will continue to change with wind and extraordinary heat conditions this weekend. That could mean that Northern communities will be under severe threat again with essential workers and volunteers required to put themselves at risk. Know that evacuees in the south may not be with you in person, but we are in spirit and though sincere gratitude may not have been offered by some, it certainly comes from us.

Thanks for putting yourselves out there.

Thanks for protecting and watching out for those things that matter to us.

Thank you for putting in the effort that many of us could not.

We will not forget.