Emergency officials say a wildfire that forced the evacuation of Sambaa K'e, N.W.T., last week could reach the community by Monday. At the same time, one home in the area has already been lost to fire after an ignition operation on the weekend went wrong.
The wildfire burning near Sambaa K'e has consumed more than 200,000 hectares of land. Around 7:30 a.m. Monday, fire information officer Mike Westwick told CBC News it had reached "within 10 kilometres" of the community.
Sambaa K'e, a community of about 100, was evacuated last week.
Tony Jumbo, who calls Sambaa K'e home, is among a small group that has stayed behind to help fight the fire. He told CBC News on Monday morning that he was taking a break from operating a bulldozer, and that it was also his job to shut down the power plant if the fire got too close.
He said he wasn't scared while he was with his fellow crew members, but it was scary to be alone.
"We have to stick together, we can't leave each other," he said.
When asked if he had a message for community members who fled to Fort Simpson, Jumbo said evacuees didn't need to worry about him or others who are still in Sambaa K'e. Some people have crossed the water to a campground on the other side of the lake, he said, and that's where he'll head too if the situation deteriorates.
The chief in Sambaa K'e, Dolphus Jumbo, declined through the community's senior administrative officer to do an interview with CBC News.
"He just doesn't wanna talk to nobody right now, we're in a crisis," said SAO Ruby Jumbo.
'A tragedy for the family'
In a statement issued shortly after 1 a.m. Monday, Westwick spoke about the home lost in the fire.
"This is first and foremost a tragedy for the family," he wrote.
The home was burned during an ignition operation — an intentional fire set to clear fuel and create a fire break — to try and curb the growth of another fire intentionally set Friday that had flared up, said Westwick. The home was lost between the airstrip and Sambaa K'e lake.
Westwick said conditions were right at the time the intentional fire was started, but an unexpected thunderstorm moved through with strong downdrafts, and it turned the wind in the opposite direction — nearly a full 180 degrees.
"This pushed the fire past the established control line near the start of the airstrip. Before it could be contained it came close enough to the community to burn a home," said Westwick, noting that it happened in a matter of minutes.
Westwick said the heart of people in his department goes out to the homeowner and to the community as a whole.
"We're in the business of protecting people and property in the wildfire program, and it is deeply upsetting when things go wrong," he said.
"Our government will immediately begin work with the family that has lost their home to get them the help they need."
Visibility improved Monday morning
If conditions remained the same as they were on Sunday, Westwick said the wildfire could reach the community Monday.
In an update in the early afternoon, the territory's wildfire agency said about 8 mm of rain had fallen near Sambaa K'e, but it was unclear how much had fallen on the nearly 100-kilometre wide swath of land that's burning.
Aircraft were able to move people and equipment to Sambaa K'e on Monday morning — overcoming, at least in part, a challenge cited earlier in the day.
In the morning interview, Westwick said firefighting conditions were "extremely challenging" and the territory hadn't been able to bring all the people to the community who are assigned to the fire because visibility and heavy smoke were preventing aircraft from being able to bring in the extra help.
Though there was some reprieve in the visibility in the morning, ot was expected to be short lived. Winds were expected to pick up and push the fire further north, which would make it difficult to see again.
"We are making the most of this opening," the update reads.
A territory has assigned a total of 38 people to the fire, including seven crews, heavy equipment, ignitions specialists, a structure protection specialist, multiple air tankers and four helicopters.
Westwick said earlier that structure protection is established for most of Sambaa K'e and for cabins at Island Lake. These are "usually effective," he noted, and have protected buildings during many wildfires throughout the territory.