A lodge owner who was not warned to flee before a fire destroyed his business remains skeptical the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has learned from the experience.
“I’d like answers and I’d like (the department) to step up and show everyone in Yellowknife that they’re going to make changes,” said Bryan Chorostkowski, who owns Namushka Lodge with his family.
The lodge on Harding Lake 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.
An independent review concluded Environment and Natural Resources had “inadequate” communications with people whose property was at risk and recommended “significant communications improvements.”
The report states the lodge owner assumed the department would be in contact with them if the fire posed a threat and that the department wasn’t aware guests had been brought to the lodge the day the fire swept through.
“I’m still upset about the way they handled it,” Chorostkowski said in an interview April 6. “I don’t think anything has changed but time will tell.”
The report, compiled by Dennis Quintilio and Associates Inc., MacGregor Forestry Ltd. and G. Mandrusiak & Associates Ltd. also called on the department to address recommendations from past years.
The department ordered the independent review shortly after the lodge was destroyed. The 38-page report was completed in November and released to Yellowknifer via an access to information request. The report was compiled through a review of records and interviews with department staff and the lodge owners.
The report’s recommendations cover seven issues: Improving the workload of a regional duty-room officer during fires that threaten multiple properties; improving communications; increasing public awareness of Fire Smart; use of software that can predict fire growth in real-time; the lack of a fire behavior analyst with the department’s response team on the day the lodge burned; updated training for staff; following up on previous recommendations for improvement.
Issue with reaching people
Frank Lepine, the department’s director of forest management, acknowledged problems during the fire.
“The biggest issue we faced with that fire was contacting or speaking with people who are in the wilderness,” he said, adding it can be difficult to know when people are in areas facing a fire threat, especially in parts of the territory without cellphone service.
Lepine said he believes enough was done to warn people last summer but added “it’s possible we could have done a better job and we’re always trying to do a better job.”
Ahead of the upcoming fire season, the territorial government is trying to gather more contact information for people who have properties in the bush, he said.
The report states there are more than 500 cabins or structures in the Ingraham Trail area.
The responsibility for protecting a building is on individuals, Lepine said.
“We aren’t capable of protecting every value out there,” he said, using a term the department uses for buildings. “It would be a full-time job. Our role is to control the fire and we expect value owners to at least put together a plan to protect their value … and at least communicate with the local regional office regarding fires on a regular basis especially if there is an ongoing fire.”
The fire began July 14 around 6 p.m. on the north side of the Ingraham Trail near a cabin in the Pickerel Lake area. Camp Connections was evacuated and the highway closed. The stage was set for what the report calls a “high intensity fire” due to a temperature near 30 C, low humidity and gusty wind.
By noon on July 15, the fire was an estimated eight kilometres from the lodge. By 4 p.m. the fire was about five kilometres from the lodge as the wind picked up.
That day, 21 guests were flown to the lodge. Chorostkowski’s brother, Brad Chorostkowski, flew back to Yellowknife at 5 p.m. after dropping off the guests and went to the department’s office to talk about the fire.
A department official suggested deploying sprinklers but the report mentions no effort at making contact. Instead, it was the Brad Chorostkowski who tried to text his brother, but the phone was off. The report found no record of the official trying to notify a superior about the guests.
Later, a call – again not from the department – did get through. 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.
The family is planning to rebuild the lodge, though within a limited budget.
The lodge was “grossly under-insured” after renovations hadn’t been factored into its coverage, Bryan Chorostkowski said.
The site was cleaned up following the fire and some materials brought in over the winter. He said they’ve had a lot of support from friends and the community.
“We’re ready to start rebuilding this spring,” he said. “It’s going to take quite a few years for everything to grow back to the way it was but my family is not going anywhere. We’ve owned the lodge for 35 years and we hope to own it for another 35.”