Keno City was founded, and sustained, on possibilities.
In the first part of the 1900s it was the possibility of mineral wealth. When that faded in the 1980s, it was the possibility of a future based on Keno City’s heritage, scenery and artistic elements.
Now residents are finding that all possibilities for Keno’s future are fading.
“We’re at the tipping point, either we build and we build consensus, and we build population, or Keno will eventually die out. That’s just the sad fact,” laments Amber Smith, who is the youngest of Keno’s permanent residents at 46. Then she adds, “And one has to wonder if that’s the master plan of YG.”
Keno residents Smith, Sonia Stange-Hepner, and Jim Milley say that the Yukon government has been saying that Keno City is too small for services. They mimic the government’s mantra saying, “That there’s no people there to run the truck, that the community is too small to have a fire truck, that the community is too small for anything.”
According the Yukon’s Bureau of Statistics, Keno City’s population has remained constant since 1972, when it was fiercely independent, but well-enough served. Keno’s not getting smaller, just older. But it appears now, as residents are suspecting, perhaps less important.
Since 2017, Keno City has lost its community water well, its fire truck, and soon will lose its waste disposal site.
In an odd juxtaposition to the conversation underway, the trio of residents are standing beside the museum’s fire suppression system (which is rendered useless without water), just as two young women walk by with a baby and small child in strollers.
One is the daughter of a long-time summer resident and the other is the wife of a mine employee who owns a house in Keno.
“We love it here!” one says as they go by.
Part-time residents aren’t counted in the population numbers. Neither are the placer miners, or the summer TV crew, or Yukon Energy crews, nor the hundreds of hard rock miners in ‘man-camps’ for two weeks-in and two weeks-out. Let alone visitors.
Anyone who has a permanent address somewhere else or votes somewhere else is not counted for the purposes of YG service delivery, even though those part-time people produce garbage, need showers, do laundry and need a place to eat.
People who come to Keno to wander the museums or hike the trails, or experience the butterflies or unique character of the town are not counted either. No one wants the historic community to burn to the ground.
The Keno City Hotel was destroyed by fire in December 2020.
“I never thought my neighbours would be outside of my building hosing it down with a garden hose while there’s six storeys of flames 15 feet away from my building,” said Milley, the owner of the bar across the street.
The old buildings in Keno City are a tinderbox, and Yukon has a regrettable history of heritage going up in flames. Andy Page’s home burned a few months later.
When asked if the old firetruck could have stopped the fire in his house, Page responded in a second, “Oh, yeah! No question.”
The neighbors garden hose was 30 feet short, and the line kept on freezing.
These two fires have added to a sense of powerlessness. Residents feel that they can no longer defend their town against fire, or intrusions, or government, and are feeling exhausted from the effects of constant, but failed advocacy. One long-time advocate, who has toiled on submissions and records since the seventies, has given up completely.
But Milley, a feisty 50-year resident, has not.
“The biggest deterrent to growth in the communities is the Yukon government. They have made it almost impossible to actually survive,” Milley said, adding outrage at “how bad they’ve allowed the rural communities to deteriorate.”
Milley argues that community members were trained as volunteer firefighters, and spreads out the certificates to prove it. He says everyone in town is a heavy equipment operator. The old truck was simple to use and only needed two people to operate.
“They locked us out of the firehouse and installed a blue bucket water filler outside the building. You can’t fight a fire with a bucket full of water,” Milley said.
According to the Yukon government’s department of community services, some water services have been supplied to the community.
The department indicated in an email to the News that water is delivered to a handful of residents.
“A bulk water storage tank is also kept full in the community, which is approximately 1,500 gallons in size. It also serves as a back-up water supply,” wrote Breagha Fraser, a spokesperson for the department.
They also indicated that mutual aid agreements are in place with Mayo and Alexco for structural fire protection, but could not verify any dates or details. Residents dispute this claim.
The hillsides lining the McQuesten Valley are busy. This summer, Northwestel laid a new fibre line from Stewart Crossing to Mayo. This was done just ahead of the $63-million Gateways highway reconstruction project from Stewart Crossing to Keno. The Yukon government will contribute almost $16 million to the project.
Yukon Energy Corporation is also reconstructing its transmission line from Mayo to the McQuesten substation just south of Victoria Gold, for a cost of $34 million. This project was scaled back from an earlier proposal that spanned Stewart to Keno.
Big project funding is one thing, but there’s been a slow erosion of operational infrastructure to the community. “All we’re asking for — we’re not asking for a new swimming pool or an art center — we just want to have basic needs, that’s all,” said Milley.
On Sept. 14, the rural fire services review is taking their group to Keno City to listen to community residents firsthand. They may go to other unincorporated communities as well.
Amber Smith said she would have liked to know about the Ember training program for women firefighters that took place this week.
It won’t be death by a thousand cuts, it will be fewer.
Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News