Wrigley at odds with N.W.T. gov't over handling of nearby wildfire

A burned stand of trees about 50 kilometers south of Wrigley, N.W.T., on Tuesday.  (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)
A burned stand of trees about 50 kilometers south of Wrigley, N.W.T., on Tuesday. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)

Band leaders in Wrigley, N.W.T., say they're frustrated by a breakdown in communication with the territorial government as a wildfire that's burned 22,000 hectares of land continues to burn nearby.

N.W.T. Fire says the blaze — dubbed FS-008 — has been contained and there's no "cause for alarm" in the Dehcho community of about 150 people. But Pedzéh Kı̨ First Nation (PKFN) says it disagrees with the territory about when an evacuation order should be declared, how much danger the community is in, and what will happen if suppression efforts fail.

"The last couple of days, there's been a huge, just absolute disconnect," said Alex Gresl, PKFN's CEO, on Wednesday. His perception is the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) doesn't want to answer questions from community members and views the First Nation's efforts to get information as a bother.

But part of their job, he pointed out, is public relations.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

"If we ask you 60 questions, it's because we've got 150 members here that are scared to death about losing their homes, losing their livelihoods," said Gresl. "We expect you to be patient and understanding."

Jules Fournel, ENR's incident commander assigned to FS-008, said an incident command post was set up in Wrigley on June 29 and from that point, almost daily — sometimes multiple times a day — updates were provided to the community's leadership.

"I felt that we had done a really good job on a continual bases. Text messages, phone calls, visits down to the incident command post, which I left open," he said. Fournel said his goal was to make sure the community was as informed about the wildfire as the people who were fighting it — but, he noted, it's been "difficult."

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

"If you don't have a background in fire and somebody is telling you to stay calm while there's a big column behind you, [it's] pretty hard to convince some people that we're doing our job and that the community is still safe."

Frank McKay, an information officer with N.W.T. Fire posted to Wrigley, said the fire was about 35 kilometres outside of Wrigley on Wednesday.

Weather conditions pose challenge

On the fringe of the community, a base camp has been set up around the makeshift incident command post. McKay said there were 61 firefighters staying in tents and cabins among the trees. The response effort also includes helicopter pilots and a paramedic.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

McKay said N.W.T. Fire's goals are to protect people and critical infrastructure — such as an Enbridge pump station outside of Wrigley. At one point a second small fire, named FS-013, erupted next to the facility but Fournel said it was extinguished by a controlled burn meant to establish a perimeter around FS-008.

The closest FS-008 has been to Wrigley, said Fournel, was about 5 kilometres from the Enbridge site. 

FS-008 started out as a 40-hectare fire caused by a lightning strike nearly 20 days ago — and the weather caused it to grow, said Fournel. He said extreme weather conditions have been one of the biggest challenges in fighting the blaze so far, including high temperatures, low humidity, and southeasterly winds.

But the controlled burns have been successful, according to N.W.T. Fire, and have pinned the wildfire against an area of forest that's already been burned. On Wednesday, crews were combing through the area that was intentionally burned, and along Highway 1, to extinguish hot spots.

Disagreement over evacuation trigger

Back in Wrigley there is less confidence in the work that's been done so far — and Gresl said they're still waiting for a firm evacuation plan.

He said the community wants to start getting elders and youth out of the community if the fire gets within 15 kilometres, but the standard set by the territorial government is to start preparing for an evacuation at eight kilometres and declaring one at five kilometres.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

If the fire gets that close, leaders fear they won't have enough time to get everyone out. Gresl said the highway would likely be shut down and smoke would make the airport inaccessible — cutting off two exits from the community.

"We can't get on a plane, and the only thing left to us is a boat — that puts us in an unbelievable, difficult situation ... [and] could even put lives at risk. And that's unacceptable," Gresl said.

Kyle Clille, Pedzéh Kı̨ First Nation's interim band manager, pointed out there are also houses outside the community up to about seven and a half kilometres away.

Fournel said N.W.T. Fire is on scene to fight the fire, and decisions about when an evacuation might be ordered rest with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA). MACA has not yet responded to questions from CBC News about evacuation protocols.

'Pray for rain'

Gresl added that although the community appreciates the efforts of fire crews, the answers they've gotten so far from the government haven't helped matters.

"We asked what happens if the [controlled burn] fails. Then we get told by an ENR representative to pray for rain."

Gresl said the community has taken some measures into its own hands. The band has cleared brush from a fire line — a gap that's supposed to stop the wildfire if it draws closer — about 12 kilometres outside of Wrigley, in case the territory's controlled burn line fails. They've also set up a camp down river in case they need to evacuate by boat.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

Chief Lloyd Moses said Pedzéh Kı̨ First Nation has also helped some elders leave, but that puts them at other risks. Elders have gone to Yellowknife, Fort Simpson and Hay River so far, and some of them have contracted COVID-19.

Moses also said band members reported the fire to the N.W.T. government when it was still small, but fire crews didn't start working on it until it had grown significantly. He said he thinks the territory should have taken the fire more seriously at the beginning.

"It could have been handled a little better," he said. "When there's a fire nearby, it kind of gets scary because there are trees right around us. You look around, we almost look like we live in the bush."