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Fort Smith airport issues had no impact on fire response, GNWT says

GNWT wildfire operations aircraft are seen at Fort Smith's airport in a file photo from 2019
GNWT wildfire operations aircraft are seen at Fort Smith's airport in a file photo from 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio


Two NWT government departments have rejected an MLA’s allegation that a “ridge in the runway” at Fort Smith’s airfield hampered efforts to fight the Hay River-KFN wildfire.

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asserted that repaving work had gone wrong, creating conditions in which aircraft like the Lockheed Electra, used to dump water on wildfires, could not land.

“It’s my understanding that they are unable to land there and instead come to Yellowknife,” Nokleby stated in the NWT legislature on Friday last week.



“I know that the Fort Smith resurfacing of the pavement did not go properly and the airport is now not fully useable by airplanes supporting the fire efforts. Could the minister please comment on whether or not she knows about this and if she doesn’t, why she doesn’t know about it?”

Responding to Nokleby, infrastructure minister Diane Archie said the airport “is fine” and while some “minor deficiencies in the apron” had been addressed, she was not aware of any issue matching the description Nokleby had provided.

Approached by Cabin Radio, both the Department of Infrastructure, which is responsible for airport maintenance, and a wildfire operations spokesperson at the Department of Environment and Climate Change (ECC) denied that any problem had interfered with air tanker flights.

By email, the Department of Infrastructure said repaving work at the airport that finished in November last year “was successful and went as planned.”



The department said a separate piece of work involved providing a “temporary ramp” between the runway and an area used by aircraft fighting wildfires. In late April, the GNWT decided “additional work was required at the temporary access ramp to provide proper clearance for some fire response-equipped aircraft to access the ECC lease area,” but the ramp work “did not impact aircraft ability to land on or take off from the runway,” the department added.

When 2023’s NWT wildfire season ramped up earlier than usual, the department said it “immediately increased the priority” of that extra work on the temporary gravel ramp, which was completed on May 21. A permanent asphalt ramp is due to be completed in June.

“Aircraft, including Electras and larger aircraft like the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, can fully use the airport and its runway for landing and take-off, and can access the ECC lease area,” the department stated.

Department of Environment and Climate Change spokesperson Mike Westwick said there had been “no operational impacts to our fire response related to the airport in Fort Smith.”

While ECC reported on May 14 – the day Hay River and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation were evacuated – that “mechanical issues in transit have delayed air tanker arrival,” meaning water bombing aircraft did not reach the fire as early as they could have, Westwick said most airborne operations targeting the Hay River-KFN fire had used Hay River’s own air tanker base.

“Some missions did need to be flown early on from Yellowknife, but that had to do with ongoing evacuations and unsafe conditions for takeoff in the region due to heavy smoke,” Westwick stated by email.

“Air tankers are currently on standby at the Fort Smith air tanker base to action the fire here, or anywhere required in the region, if that becomes necessary. The Electra air tanker group aircraft are able to operate out of Fort Smith. We have no concerns about them taking off or landing. Work has been done to accommodate them seamlessly as longer-term work is completed at the airport.”

Westwick said air tankers can use six different bases in the NWT, with Fort Simpson, Norman Wells and Inuvik also equipped alongside Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith.



Nokleby in conduct apology

Friday’s discussion also triggered a bizarre scene in which Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr warned Nokleby for a sarcastic mock-withdrawal of remarks deemed to have crossed a line.

Nokleby had already apologized for suggesting that Archie was “deflecting” over concerns about the airport’s condition. Blake had decided Nokleby’s remark broke a legislature rule that states MLAs’ questions to ministers cannot “contain inferences, impute motives or cast aspersions upon any person.”

But in apologizing the first time, Nokleby asserted that her deflection remark was borne of “frustration about the lack of answers that we get from cabinet,” adding that MLAs “should be allowed to have political debate and people need to be able to hear the truth.”

Blake asked Nokleby to restate her apology and withdraw her remarks without “questioning the ruling.”

Nokleby stood and, theatrically, declared: “I apologize and withdraw my remarks to this amazing minister.”

A short pause followed in which Blake appeared to work out whether or not that apology counted. He eventually returned and told Nokleby to apologize not just to the minister but to the House in general, and to “be respectful to the members and also to the residents of the Northwest Territories.”

Offered “one final opportunity to apologize,” Nokleby did so in straightforward fashion.

The contretemps between Blake and Nokleby was noteworthy for having been triggered by another regular MLA.

Ordinarily, points of order about the legislature’s rules tend to involve a member of cabinet and a regular MLA, between whom most verbal sparring in the House takes place.

It’s less common for a regular MLA to raise a point of order regarding another regular MLA, but Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly stood to draw Blake’s attention to Nokleby’s remarks about Archie, saying Nokleby was “imputing motives on the part of the minister … and I just don’t accept that as proper conduct in the House.”