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Wildfire fight switches from defence to offence near capital of Northwest Territories

August 21, 2023 
By Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Aug. 21, 2023, Yellowknife – Firefighters battling a wildfire near the capital of the Northwest Territories shifted from defence to offence, as the legislative assembly is set to be recalled to consider a law delaying the upcoming territorial election.

The territory’s chief electoral officer, Stephen Dunbar, has recommended that the election scheduled for Oct. 3 be delayed until November due to the wildfire situation.

“The logistics and people required to run an election are significant, and in the current circumstances, there are a number of ridings where we would not be in a position to safely proceed on Sept. 4,” Dunbar said in a statement, referring to when he has been ordered by Commissioner Margaret Thom to issue writs of election in all 19 electoral districts.

House Speaker Frederick Blake Jr. shared the recommendation with caucus, comprising all 19 legislature members, and caucus chair Frieda Martselos said there was “clear support” for it.

Blake is set to recall the legislative assembly next Monday for members to pass the election-delaying bill. The statement said the assembly will sit in Inuvik, N.W.T., if sitting in Yellowknife isn’t possible.

Meanwhile, a weekend of cooler temperatures, favourable winds and some rain has led firefighters to shift gears.

Fire information officer Mike Westwick said Monday that crews were in a position to move to direct attack on the fire. Until now, firefighters had mostly focused on trying to stop the spread or reduce the intensity of the fire near Yellowknife. That meant building fire lines to rob the fire of fuel or water-bombing it from the air to cool it off.

Now he said they’re looking at putting out fire right on the perimeter, which is more of an offensive strategy against the blaze.

“It’s highly unlikely to reach the outskirts of Yellowknife over the next couple of days, because we’ve done some good work and held that fire at bay with aerial support, and that bought us time to get to some help from weather,” Westwick told a media briefing Monday evening.

Flames remained about 15 kilometres from Yellowknife, whose 20,000 people were largely evacuated by road and air. Most evacuees were staying in Alberta communities, while about 3,000 were flown to Manitoba.

Westwick said nearly five millimetres of rain over the weekend helped prevent the fire’s spread, while swirling winds tended to push the fire back on itself.

He warned warmer temperatures were on the way, however, and that conditions were so dry that a fire behaviour analyst told them 60 mm would be needed over around 10 days to bring moisture levels of small, fine forest fuels, like vegetation on the forest floor, back to normal.

For perspective, he said there’s been only about 10 mm over the last few days.

Fires are much closer to other communities that have been evacuated. One is about eight kilometres away from Hay River, a town of about 3,500 people on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. Another is about four kilometres from Fort Smith, a community of 2,500 people along the Alberta-N.W.T. boundary.

Those towns, which didn’t get Yellowknife’s rain, are facing a tough week, said Westwick, with Tuesday and Wednesday nights being a particular worry, where wind gusts could reach 50 km/h.

Extensive fire breaks and sprinkler systems have been installed around those communities.

Jennifer Young, a spokeswoman for the territory’s emergency management organization, told the media Monday there have been reports of people returning to Fort Smith, or planning to return there.

“Residents need to know that you will be stopped at established checkpoints and asked to verify that you are an essential worker of an evacuated community before you are let through,” Young said.

Westwick said almost 600 firefighters are in the field, backed up by dozens of helicopters, air tankers and pieces of heavy equipment.

The City of Calgary said 13 of its firefighters were flown Monday to Yellowknife to help. Two fire trucks and other fire department vehicles were also sent north Sunday.

Edmonton also sent four fire trucks and two support vehicles, which were expected to arrive Monday.

More soldiers were also being deployed to Hay River.

Defence Minister Bill Blair announced the deployment Sunday, saying it would bring the number of soldiers helping the territory around Hay River and Yellowknife to about 400. Local members of Joint Task Force North were also assisting.

The Forces have also assigned two helicopters and a Twin Otter airplane to the firefighting efforts, while two Hercules airplanes remained stationed in Edmonton ready to help if needed.

Premier Caroline Cochrane said Sunday she had spoken with several federal ministers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, about how the territory needs financial assistance to deal with the fires and help evacuees.

Blair promised federal funding.

“We will continue to work very closely with the territory to reimburse for all eligible expenses,” he said Monday in Charlottetown, where the federal cabinet is meeting this week.

“There are some extraordinary challenges in the Northwest Territories and we’re working very closely with their government and also with Indigenous governments in the region to make sure that the supports are there to help people recover.

“There’s a great deal of trauma that’s been experienced by that community, having to leave your home, having to flee with your most precious personal possessions, but uncertainty as to whether your community would be there when you return.”

Planning is underway in case the upcoming school year is disrupted, Cochrane noted on Sunday. However, the territory’s deputy minister of education, culture and employment said Monday night that online learning wouldn’t be feasible since, unlike during COVID-19, students, as well as teachers, are living in campgrounds and hotels where internet may not be available.

Meanwhile, applications are open for the Evacuee Income Disruption Support program, which helps N.W.T. residents who have lost employment income during extended evacuation periods.

Anyone over 17 years old whose employment has been disrupted by an evacuation lasting more than seven days is eligible to receive a one-time payment of $750.


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