Leaders and residents calling for public inquiry into N.W.T. wildfire response

Cars lined up to leave Hay River, N.W.T. on Aug. 16, 2023. (Carla Ulrich/CBC)

By Carla Ulrich · CBC News

People want answers and change after an unprecedented fire season

Calls for an inquiry into the N.W.T. government’s response to this summer’s wildfire season continue to grow.

The Dene Nation released a statement on Oct. 12 calling for a full independent public inquiry into the management and response to the unprecedented wildfire season.

Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine said communities should have a chance to voice their experience with evacuations.

“Some people were away from their home community and unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings for over a month,” he said.

“The best way to do this is to have a full independent public inquiry that encourages everyone in our communities to talk about it.”

Gerald Antoine in May 2021. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Warning that climate catastrophe will continue and uncertainty will become the norm, Antoine said he wants to see Dene knowledge incorporated into the emergency response to wildfires moving forward.

“Our people have … always relied on our own understanding of the land and the environment around us to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” said Antoine.

“Dene authority and governance must be recognized and included in all response plans going forward.”

Antoine also said the discussion must include lessons learned and a look to the future. With the fires now going underground for the winter, he is concerned about which ones will resurface in the spring.

Earlier this week, leaders in Enterprise, N.W.T., were asking how their community was almost completely wiped out. The community of about 100 people lost 80 per cent of its structures.

And in Fort Smith, N.W.T., residents created a petition calling for a public inquiry, specifically looking at the Hay River/Enterprise/Kakisa evacuation response.

Helena Katz is the owner of the Flat World Alpaca farm in Fort Smith. She wants answers after Hay River’s last-minute evacuation order that resulted in a dangerous trek for many.

“A lot of us have lots of questions and no answers. So I think that’s the first step,” Katz said.

Animals lost in fire

Katz and her husband were driving south of Hay River with their animals in a trailer when flames engulfed the highway and their vehicle caught fire.

They managed to escape and were rescued, but they lost their beloved alpacas and herding dogs in the incident.

Katz said the evacuation experience in Fort Smith was completely different than the one in Hay River. In Fort Smith, she said they utilized the three-tier evacuation notification system.

Helena Katz with one of her livestock dogs, Cassie, taken last November. (Submitted by Helena Katz)

Fort Smith’s evacuation notice was sent out at the end of July, well before the alert that residents received on Aug. 11. The notice gave residents time to prepare to evacuate before the official order came on Aug. 12.

At the time, fire officials said the fire that threatened Hay River also moved at an incredible speed, covering at least 40 kilometres in a single day.

“Where was Hay River River? There was no evacuation notice, they just went straight to an evacuation order.”

When Katz left Hay River, there was no warning of any potential danger on the highway until they were in the middle of it.

“The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see past the hood of the vehicle. And there were flying embers and some debris and ash falling. And so you couldn’t see the road ahead of you,” she said.

Katz also talked about the lasting effects of the incident.

“Not only is it a public safety issue, but then there’s some trauma associated with that, that you’re dealing with for months afterward,” she said.

“It’s a miracle that no humans died. And I say specifically humans, because animals died on that highway.”

Burned vehicles outside Enterprise, N.W.T. on Monday. RCMP on Monday morning reported about 12 vehicles that had been ‘immobilized or destroyed by the fire.’ (Submitted by Ron Pierrot)

Katz said she would like the inquiry to resolve a lot of unanswered questions, and wants to see recommendations put into place that the government can actually accomplish.

She also hopes for better communication between officials and communities.

Katz echoed the Dene Nation’s warning for the future.

“Wildfires are not going to go away and the land is very thirsty,” she said.

An evacuation order sign sits at the town’s main 4-way. Katz commended Fort Smith for their evacuation response. (Carla Ulrich/CBC)

Government planning review

CBC reached out to Shane Thompson, minister of municipal and community affairs, for a comment but Thompson was unavailable as there is a media blackout in anticipation of the upcoming election.

On Sept. 29, Thompson told the legislature that external contractors would do a review and that the government would not wait for the recommendations to make improvements.

He also wants to see an update to the N.W.T. Emergency Plan, enhanced coordination with communities, community training, and increased capacity for emergency response.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: N.W.T. projected to spend $100M on fighting wildfires — 5 times more than budgeted, CBC News

Norway: Smoke from Canadian wildfires forecast to reach Norway, The Associated Press

Russia: New NOAA report finds vast Siberian wildfires linked to Arctic warming, The Associated Press

Sweden: High risk of wildfires in many parts of Sweden, including North, Radio Sweden

United States: Wildfires in Anchorage? Climate change sparks disaster fears, The Associated Press

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