How the N.W.T.'s Yellow Dog Lodge was narrowly saved from wildfire

A wildfire burning near the Yellow Dog Lodge in late July put the business at risk, but owner Gord Gin says firefighting efforts meant the lodge suffered minimal damage. (Submitted by Gord Gin - image credit)
A wildfire burning near the Yellow Dog Lodge in late July put the business at risk, but owner Gord Gin says firefighting efforts meant the lodge suffered minimal damage. (Submitted by Gord Gin - image credit)

Gord Gin has been at his lodge on the shores of Duncan Lake in the N.W.T. since June.

At first, it was to prepare for incoming guests. As with most tourism operators, Gin's Yellow Dog Lodge struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic; he said they expected this to be their "recovery year."

"We were getting a record number of bookings both in the winter and the summer," he said.

But early into the tourism season, that optimism went up in smoke.

As wildfires raged across the territory, the Yellow Dog Lodge was soon at risk. In July, a fire north of the Ingraham Trail threatened to burn down the lodge on Duncan Lake, which is about 50 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife.

Fortunately the lodge was saved, following a successful backburn operation to protect the property. Fire crews then turned it into a base of operations.

That's actually when the most damage happened — Gin said one of the N.W.T. firefighters accidentally set his fish smoker on fire.

"That almost took out the lodge," he said. "I was pissed and the incident commander flew out to talk to me about the incident, and we sat down and had a discussion about training and respect."

Gin said it was one of a handful of incidents where local fire crews "were not very respectful."

He ultimately requested they be removed.

"After that, they put in some pretty good folks from other parts of Canada and we had no problems," said Gin.

A fish smoker at the N.W.T.'s Yellow Dog Lodge was accidentally burned by firefighters while they used the lodge as a base of operations in 2023, says lodge owner Gord Gin.
A fish smoker at the N.W.T.'s Yellow Dog Lodge was accidentally burned by firefighters while they used the lodge as a base of operations in 2023, says lodge owner Gord Gin.

Gord Gin's damaged fish smoker. (Submitted by Gord Gin)

Mike Westwick, an N.W.T. fire information officer, said his agency was aware of "an incident involving a cooking device which was accidentally damaged" and that it agreed to replace it.

"First and foremost, we deeply appreciate the support Yellow Dog Lodge provided to firefighting operations in the area," said Westwick.

He said no other issues were raised about crew behaviour.

"The highest level of conduct is expected of our teams and when concerns arise, we use the appropriate tools within the employment contract to correct behaviour," he said.

Crews were set up at the lodge until Sept. 1.

Backburn saves property 

Other than the fish smoker scare, Gin says there's been minimal damage to the property.

He attributes that to the backburn — though it was a little too close for comfort.

With fire retardant in place and sprinkler systems set up, Gin said crews "set the whole hillside on fire, which is only about 30 metres from the lodge."

He added that it was a "very scary and very sad" experience, but the team doing the backburn was "excellent" and he appreciates the efforts to save the property.

That includes a memorial for his nephew who died when he was 14.

"That really made my heart feel good when they did everything in their power to save what was valuable to us," he said.

Westwick said four structures burned as a result of fires ZF 011 and ZF 012, north of the Ingraham Trail.

Insurance struggles

Now, Gin says that lack of physical damage to the property is actually working against him.

Overall, he estimates the lodge has lost about $180,000 in revenue this summer due to the wildfires and evacuations.

Despite having business interruption insurance, Gin said the response from his insurer has been "disheartening."

"They told me … that I would have had to lose some property and some assets here before the insurance would kick in, which to me was ludicrous because of the disruption of the smoke and the transportation, as well as the forest fire being 30 metres away," he said.

Looking down on a wildfire burning near the Yellow Dog Lodge in the N.W.T., July 2023.
Looking down on a wildfire burning near the Yellow Dog Lodge in the N.W.T., July 2023.

Gin said seeing the fire so close to his lodge was a 'very scary and very sad' experience. (Submitted by Gord Gin)

"There's nobody in their right mind that would have hosted any guest, just because of safety — and the insurance company has balked a little bit."

The fire has left scars on the landscape; Gin says it burned a picnic area and a number of trails need to be cleared again.

"So there is a loss, maybe not a physical loss to the property as such, but there is a loss because we can't do a lot of the activities that we used to do," he said.

'A season like this really has to weigh on my mind'

Gin and his wife, Kathy, have owned the lodge since 2005.

"It's been one of the toughest seasons I've ever been part of," he said.

Constantly knowing there's a fire at your doorstep led to high staff turnover. Gin says he's on his fourth chef of the season.

"They were either physically drained or emotionally touched by the closeness of the forest fire," he said.

Gin says the lodge is back to full operations — though with limited staff. Guests started arriving the same day Yellowknife reopened to residents after the evacuation.

But he's unsure about the long-term effects of the wildfire season.

"I've already fielded a lot of calls of people who want to cancel because they just feel uneasy that N.W.T. is not a safe place to be," he said.

At 65, the whole experience also has Gin questioning how long he can keep the lodge open.

Despite the losses, he says the lodge is financially sound.

"A season like this really has to weigh on my mind and it's made me rethink if I wanted to keep on doing this for any more … it's more of a mental thing, and preparedness."