How some Sahtu communities are preparing for 2024's fire season

Sahtu leaders say last summer's wildfires left residents "unprepared" and without basic food items as the territorial capital evacuated.

This year, the Behdzi Ahda First Nation has purchased hoses, water pumps and tools to fight a potential fire, said Sahtu Dene Council Grand Chief Wilbert Kochon.

Though fires are rarely a direct threat to Colville Lake because of its proximity to water bodies, Kochon said the community – like many others in the Northwest Territories – relies on active communication from Yellowknife to prepare ahead of an emergency.

He found that to be lacking in the territory's response last year.

"There was no fire but we still got affected by what happened in Yellowknife when everything stopped. We were not prepared for that," said Kochon.

"No mail, no food, no fresh produce ... I think next time, if there's going to be an evacuation, they should let people know way ahead of time so we can prepare for a lot of other stuff."

Kochon said a delay in the N.W.T. government's response forced locals to make arrangements at the last minute, when charters that normally deliver supplies once a week stopped coming in. While residents stocked up on frozen meat, they had less time to arrange for milk or bread.

"They responded but it didn't happen right away, and some things didn't even happen although they said they were going to do it," he said, describing a planned charter from Edmonton that didn't come together.

"All those things that they have protocols for – for the government to set up the things – we probably really have to set up ourselves."

Days after Yellowknife evacuated, Canada Post announced it was holding mail for wildfire-affected N.W.T. communities in Edmonton. Kochon said that created difficulties for Elders needing cheques that wouldn't be delivered in time. In some communities, mobile banking was eliminated as an option when wildfires damaged fibre lines.

Meanwhile, temperatures reached 37C in Tulita last July and a wildfire burned cabins at 12 Mile Point, sending thick smoke into the community.

Mayor Douglas Yallee said the situation created a state of panic among residents, who had already faced a 1995 forest fire initiated by a coal seam fire roughly five kilometres south of the community.

"They were worried because of the past fires. People were kind-of nervous," Yallee told Cabin Radio earlier this year.

"We asked Maca about what the protocol is for a state of emergency, whether there's [going to be] an evacuation notice. They said: 'No, there's not any danger.' But there was a lot of smoke in the community. Lots ... smoke is very dangerous. We were worried that the smoke is going to affect the Elders and the young people."

Yallee said to escape the smoke, the community government helped residents leave the hamlet.

"To get our people out, we just did it. We evacuated to Délı̨nę," he added.

Things can change fast

In Norman Wells, fire chief Brandon Scott said the town is "completely ready to assist" if smaller communities need to send evacuees.

"As well, we're ready now to deal with anything that could be impending on our community," he said.

Scott said the town has updated its community emergency response plan and drawn up all necessary preventative measures ahead of wildfire season.

Last year, Norman Wells ended up hosting some seniors from other communities at its 18-bed long-term care facility.

"We actually did take in residents from Behchokǫ̀, we took residents from Hay River, and we assisted those communities with housing their elderly patients," Scott said.

Scott said the town's firefighters are planning urban interface training – urban interface being the name for the area where the wilderness meets communities and wildfires can pose a threat. He said the GNWT is set to help the fire division's members train for wildland firefighting.

The structural firefighting that would normally be the domain of a town firefighter uses a different set of tools to wildland firefighting, Scott said, and the town is in the process of providing all the necessary tools to its firefighters.

"We have different hose sizes, we have different fittings. So we're working with ECC right now to make sure that we are prepared," he said, referring to the Department of Environment and Climate Change.

"There was a lot of support came up from down south and we realized that we need to be better prepared with our structural equipment to be able to assist the wildland firefighters, should the fire breach into the community. It's very important,

"We're just taking the lessons that were learned from the fires in Hay River, Yellowknife and we're putting that into our plans. Maca has been pretty easy to work with when it comes to giving us the materials to update our plans with templates and relevant information that obviously was learned from the big fires we had last year."

Scott urged Sahtu residents to be well prepared and have a bag ready in case an emergency forces an evacuation.

"Let's be as prepared as possible because these things happen quick. I mean, you could be one day with nothing anywhere close to you, but then you have one lightning strike and next thing you know, eight hours later, we could be in an evacuation state," he said.

"There are some great people working in the forestry division and they are well trained, and we just need to be able to trust them and follow the guidelines as much as possible."

Aastha Sethi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio