Some N.W.T. communities alter evacuation plans as wildfires close roads

A photo of a wildfire on N.W.T. Highway 1. The highway was closed on Monday due to multiple wildfires burning along it. It reopened on Tuesday. (Robert Holden/CBC)

Fort Simpson mayor holding meeting to discuss potential state of emergency

Three communities in the N.W.T. Dehcho region with road access are being threatened by wildfires that are preventing them from leaving by vehicle.

The communities of Fort Liard, Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River are now forced to come up with emergency plans that don’t involve the highways that have been closing intermittently over the past week.

In 2023, several communities in the South and North Slave, including Fort Smith and Yellowknife, evacuated partially because the road was at risk of being cut off.

On Monday, nearly the entire length of Highway 1 was closed down. According to the highway conditions map on Tuesday morning the highway had reopened, but there are advisories on the road and warnings it could close in short notice.

This, along with the closure of Highway 7, which connects the N.W.T. to B.C., left those three communities with no road escape.

Fort Simpson mayor considering state of emergency 

Sean Whelly, mayor of Fort Simpson, said that he will be meeting with some members of the village emergency management organization on Monday to discuss a possible state of emergency.

Whelly said declaring a state of emergency would be a precautionary measure and the community isn’t under threat right now.

He said the fire by checkpoint is concerning considering its proximity and the fact it’s blocking the road.

“I mean that could become an issue here if it gets closer to the river,” he said.

“If it was somewhere between the airport and town, well, as soon as it gets towards the airport, we’ve got no alternatives, right?”

Whelly said Fort Simpson is still listed as the emergency location for Fort Liard, but with the highway closing intermittently, he’s not sure if that’s changed.

Whelly said Fort Liard would not be a good community to shelter-in-place.

“Anybody that’s been in Liard knows that there’s a lot of trees right in their town,” he said.

“It’s one of the things that makes it kind of beautiful but it’s one of the things that makes it kind of susceptible to having a fire run through that place.”

Alternate fly out plans 

John McKee, the senior administrative officer of Fort Liard, said he is meeting with officials later Tuesday morning to discuss an evacuation plan in the case there’s no road available.

“It is an issue for us,” he said of the roads being closed.

He says the plan would be to fly out, likely to Yellowknife or Hay River.

A concern that was raised months ago was the lack of firebreak around the Fort Liard, including the airport.

McKee said the hamlet doesn’t build firebreaks, it’s a task that requires more financial resources and equipment to do in a community with trees like Fort Liard has.

He says they do some fuel management, which is clearing as much potential fuel as possible.

McKee said the airport has had a little fuel management done, but not “a whole lot yet.”

Jennifer Young, a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, said the communities are responsible for determining when its capacity has been exceeded and it needs assistance from the territorial government.

“The GNWT has surge capacity to provide support, including looking into options for coordinating responses for concurrent events,” she wrote in an email.

“We remain in regular contact with local authorities to monitor the situation closely and are prepared to provide assistance if needed.”

Young said the territory isn’t aware of any communities having declared a state of emergency yet.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: N.W.T. Indigenous governments get $15M to deal with 2023 wildfires’ impact, 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

Luke Caroll, CBC News

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