'We just need a clear plan.' Wildfire frustration deepens in Wrigley

·8 min read

Leaders of the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation say they are unhappy with how the Northwest Territories government is handling their concerns as a wildfire burns south of the community.

Over the past three weeks, a fire has burned through almost 22,000 hectares of forest 40 km south of Wrigley, N.W.T. While the fire hasn't reached the community, falling ash has and air quality has deteriorated.

Two cabins have so far been lost to the fire, which is being attacked by dozens of firefighters, including 20 drafted in from Saskatchewan.

Recent rain and controlled burns have helped to manage the fire's spread, but the First Nation says frustrations remain.

Last Friday, as community members monitoring the fire's growth reported a rapid advance, the First Nation and representatives from two territorial government departments – Environment and Natural Resources, or ENR, and Municipal and Community Affairs, or Maca – gathered that morning to discuss their response and a plan for a potential evacuation.

While concern among some residents had been steadily rising for some time, representatives of the First Nation said Friday's meeting left them with the impression that there was no opportunity for meaningful collaboration, and the N.W.T. government was simply communicating decisions that had already been made.

"We all agreed that evacuations should begin when the fire reached the 15-kilometre mark from the community," said Kyle Clillie, the First Nation's band manager, this week.

"But then at five o'clock, they came back and told us they would only start evacuating Elders and young children at eight kilometres and the rest of the community at five kilometres."

According to Clillie, the First Nation was told that change would allow another controlled burn to proceed the next day at a site around 12 kilometres from the community, to protect an Enbridge pump station.

The First Nation says it asked that ENR hold off on the controlled burn to give leaders time to plan for a possible evacuation if the burn did not go as planned, given dry conditions in the area. Clillie says that request was denied.

"They gave us no time to prepare. With our community, we don't have a radio station and we're limited in our communication. The most reliable way to get through to everyone is going door-to-door," he said.

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for ENR, said the department has deployed its own information officer to the area to provide regular updates to the community by email, cellphone and the distribution of notices.

While members understood that the risk of Saturday's controlled burn getting out of hand was low, the First Nation says there was concern that closure of Highway 1 and poor visibility due to smoke left the community without the ability to evacuate by road or air if something went wrong.

Maca has previously said a water evacuation could be considered, but Clillie says the community only has 10 boats – not nearly enough for everyone.

"The response from ENR to our concerns was 'pray for rain,'" said Clillie. "I know they're under a lot of stress, but we're under a lot of stress too. We have more than 150 community members and we're trying to keep them calm, and they're asking questions that we can't answer.

"How can the new threshold for evacuation be eight kilometres when we have residences seven kilometres outside the community?"

Clillie understands that if the fire reaches the eight-kilometre mark, evacuation planes will need four to six hours to arrive. Given the unpredictable behaviour of wildfires and their ability to grow quickly in some circumstances – as happened last Friday – he thinks that's a concern.

"We just need a clear evacuation plan," said Chief Lloyd Moses. "And we need it now. Not when the fire is five kilometres from town. Elders, kids and pets need to be evacuated prior to the fire coming into the community."

Westwick said decisions made about the controlled burn took into account wind and weather conditions.

"We were extraordinarily careful, listened to concerns brought forward, and put off ignition operations for days so conditions would be ideal," Westwick said.

"There would be no scenario where we would be doing those operations if our analysis was that we should be 'praying' for rain as a result of our doing them. That is simply not what the incident commander said as it related to the ignition operations."

Chief Moses says the work to protect pipeline giant Enbridge's facilities is a frustration as, according to the First Nation, requests for sprinklers to protect residential areas of Wrigley were denied.

"The way they treat us makes it seem like they want to get rid of us," said Moses. "Their focus seems to be on protecting their investments."

Westwick last week confirmed teams are in place to protect Enbridge's pipeline infrastructure, "as we do with any company or organization with infrastructure, equipment, structures, or other important things on the land that might be threatened with wildfire."

The First Nation says Wrigley's small leadership team is operating at its limit trying to plan what to do if the fire does reach the community.

"We do what it takes, and then some," said Moses. "We're working long hours, clearing away brush, keeping an eye on things."

The Saturday night before the planned burn, Clillie sent an update to an ENR representative.

"I went to assess the fire near the highway myself, and I noticed there was a small fire starting around the Enbridge pipeline," he told Cabin Radio.

"As soon I got back into cellphone range, I immediately sent the pictures to ENR, and the response I got was: 'Nice picture. I'm going to bed.'

"If that's the kind of response we get when we try to communicate, that's just no help to us."

Westwick, speaking on ENR's behalf after reviewing the messages, said of the exchange: "I think we've all sent a text message or two which came off a little differently than we'd hoped due to lack of context in the medium.

"It was certainly never the intent to come off as dismissive. We have offered our apologies to leadership."

Nevertheless, the First Nation said the exchange confirmed the impression they received in Friday's meeting that attempts to coordinate a joint response with the territorial government were being disregarded.

"We told them if the fire got to the 11-kilometre mark, we were going to call for a state of emergency," said Clillie. "ENR's response was: 'You don't have an emergency response plan.'"

The First Nation says it had distributed such a plan several days prior to the meeting, but an ENR representative said they had not had the time to read it.

"So they haven't responded to our emergency response," said Clillie. "They're telling us we have to stay in the community until there's a fire five kilometres away, and wait six hours for a plane that might not be able to land in the smoke.

"And then they expect us to trust them that this fireguard and their backburn is going to work. We have a community that is panicking, and this is not helping."

Ultimately, the controlled burn went off without a hitch. The First Nation says that doesn't change what it argues is a lack of clarity around how an evacuation would work and an ongoing communications issue.

Leaders in Wrigley say Maca and ENR have each suggested the other department would be responsible for issuing an official call to evacuate.

Asked by Cabin Radio, ENR said Maca is responsible for all issues relating to "evacuations, community evacuation timing, and financial assistance if a local state of emergency [was] called."

Maca appeared to direct responsibility to the First Nation.

"Local authorities have a responsibility to develop and implement emergency plans as well as maintaining a local emergency management organization (EMO)," Jay Boast, a spokesperson for Maca, said by email.

"These local EMOs are responsible ... for preparing the community for a possible evacuation, developing evacuation plans and keeping residents informed during emergency events.

"It is up to community governments to decide when to evacuate their community and coordinate those evacuations. Maca, as chair of the regional EMO, can offer advice and support around evacuations. During wildfire events, Maca relies on ENR’s assessment of risk during when providing advice to communities."

If "community capacity is exhausted," Boast said, communities are to appeal to ENR. If ENR believes the risk is severe enough, the department will assist in the evacuation.

Clillie, though, insists a Maca representative told him: "If you're the ones who call for a state of emergency, we won't be able to assist you."

As of Thursday, the N.W.T. government says the community remains in no direct danger from the fire.

Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio

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