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Fire FS001, south of Sambaa K'e, is shown pushing eastward in a May 31, 2023 Sentinel-2 false-colour satellite image
Fire FS001, south of Sambaa K'e, is shown pushing eastward in a May 31, 2023 Sentinel-2 false-colour satellite image.

NWT considers fighting fire with fire south of Sambaa K’e

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Anticipating a potentially dangerous shift in the wind, firefighters south of Sambaa K’e could set a protective fire of their own.

The Dehcho community of around 100 people was evacuated by air to Fort Simpson on Wednesday, primarily over concerns that smoke from fire FS001 was making it hard for residents to breathe and could stop planes flying.

If air service to Sambaa K’e was disrupted, the community – with no year-round road out – would be trapped.

“There was a chance of winds increasing, the fire crews were going to be fighting the fire, and the feeling was that there was a possibility that the airport could be compromised in terms of smoke,” said Jay Boast, a Department of Municipal and Community Affairs spokesperson, on Thursday morning.

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“That would then put the community at greater risk, if that happened. So the evacuation was called in consultation with the community, to make sure that everyone was safe.”

Boast said all residents had safely left the community, barring a few expected to stay behind to assist firefighting operations, with the last plane carrying 29 passengers away from Sambaa K’e shortly before 7pm on Wednesday.

Fire crews are now assessing their next steps against a fire that has burned more than 100,000 hectares of land across the NWT-BC border, and which is now just under 30 kilometres from the community.

Mike Westwick, a fire information officer for the NWT government, said crews had now set up industrial-grade sprinklers to protect critical infrastructure and were working on similar protection for individual homes. A fire break south of the community is now 40 metres wide and growing.

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But the wind forecast for the 48 hours ahead is concerning, Westwick said, and may merit extra measures given the sheer scale of the fire.

“Something that we’re quite concerned about for tomorrow is winds coming from the south,” Westwick told Cabin Radio on Thursday morning, adding that a south wind would push the fire toward Sambaa K’e and had been another reason for proactively evacuating the community.

“We’re considering what’s called an ignition operation – very intentionally set and carefully planned fires, designed to remove things that can burn from between a fire and things you want to protect,” Westwick said.

“It’s fighting fire with fire, basically, and that’s a really important tactic, particularly when you’re dealing with really significant fires in size like this.”

Sambaa K’e ‘really organized’

In Fort Simpson, an evacuation centre has been set up at the community’s recreation complex, offering basics like shelter, food and washrooms.

“Many of the evacuees from Sambaa K’e were able to arrange for their own accommodations,” said Boast.

“We really have to commend Sambaa K’e,” he added. “The leadership at the community level has been excellent and they really deserve a lot of praise … being really organized and providing excellent support to the residents.”

Both Boast and Westwick urged residents of the NWT to take as much care as they can with fires, given the extreme nature of the season – and its exceptionally early start.

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“We’re now at June 1. So we’ve just gotten out of May, and we are already seeing pretty significant fire activity. Even across the country, we know there’s been pretty significant fire activity,” said Boast.

“We just really want to drive home the message to people to be very, very careful with fire out on the land, and to make sure that you douse your fire in water, stir it and then douse it again to make sure it’s completely out.”

Westwick said May had been “pretty extraordinary.”

“We don’t normally see this volume of fires. We’re not normally in a position where two communities have been under some sort of threat – three communities, in fact, before the end of May,” he said.

“We’ve got months and months ahead of us here for this wildfire season, but the seasonal outlook was challenging – we expected a difficult and challenging fire season, and that’s exactly what we’re getting.

“What people can do to help out is do absolutely everything they can to prevent fire when they’re out on the land. We’ve seen a number of fires – eight this year so far – that are suspected to have been caused by human activity. And every one of those fires is completely avoidable.”