The story of Keno’s heartbreaking loss to fire will be remembered this weekend as Yukoners return to the tiny city for the first Keno Music Festival without the Keno City hotel. The historic hotel burned to the ground in December 2020; the community’s fire truck had been removed in 2019.
But Keno folks were never ones to take no for an answer.
Now they’ve bought a fire truck.
Hard work lobbying and making do with little
The community has lobbied hard – first for the return of their old truck; then for a comprehensive fire service review with an eye to unincorporated communities; and after that, for the Yukon government (YG) to follow the recommendations in the 2021 review which suggested a “fire protection in a box” system for small communities.
But still, the government was too slow for a town accustomed to its own “just let’s get’er done” approach to problem solving.
This past July, when forest fires reared their head in the Mayo-Keno area and YG’s protective services issued an evacuation alert for the nearby populations, community folks doubled down on efforts to protect themselves.
Metallic Minerals lent the community a pump for a nearby creek; resourceful Kenoites scrounged up big water totes; Mike Mancini coaxed his old water truck into moving again; and unnamed people rolled the old 1960’s fire truck off its long-term resting place beside the community club to see if it would still hold water.
Six multi-gallon totes were filled and distributed at locations around town “just in case.”
Then another adjacent mining company, Alexco, came up to see what they could do to help in terms of community projects. That’s when the idea of piped water from the creek to the townsite arose.
“And so, within two days, they were here with a crew. They put in two-inch rolled out pipe and put it from down at the campground up through town around by the double log cabins, that road, and then another one that split off and came up to the museum,” explained Sonia Stange-Hepner, one of Keno’s two official fire safety champions. She said “the project stayed hush-hush.”
The Yukon government was still not committing to provide the fire-protection-in-a-box equipment or giving the community access to its water in the firehall with its unlimited supply of “unpotable” (ie. not drinkable) water.
Then Keno’s complaints made CBC’s “The National.”
According to Stange-Hepner, soon after that, a government official agreed the community could park a water tanker truck in the old hall and could use the well water, if it worked, to fill it.
Property management people from Mayo came up to Keno and checked the water flow rate.
Turns out, water is flowing at 300 gallons in 30 minutes, good enough to refill the water tanker, or a fire truck.
Story has many legs and ears
Back in Whitehorse, as the news was breaking nationally, Kevin McDonald read about the problems Keno residents were having, and realized he had just the thing. In October 2021, he had purchased a surplus fire truck online from the Yukon government. Once he got it home, he realized it was quite a bit bigger than what he needed.
“I had it in my garage for the winter and decided to list it when I read about them,” McDonald said. He took some pictures and posted it for what he paid for, and thought someone from Keno might call. “I think I put it in on a Saturday and they phoned me Sunday morning.”
Keno residents got together, ponied up what they could each afford and pooled $8,000 for the fire truck within a few days.
The truck’s still in Whitehorse, waiting for the residents to figure out ownership and insurance.
“As long as we’re able to store it in the building,” Stange-Hepner says. She doesn’t anticipate the government will change its mind just because the truck sitting in the hall is a fire truck instead of a water truck. “There’s no difference really.”
She says it will be like the fire-protection-in-a-box system, but with a much larger tank.
The community is cognizant of risk and liability and are working on a plan to move forward. Kenoites are used to getting things done.
Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News