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The view on the outskirts of Sambaa K'e on June 3, 2023
The view on the outskirts of Sambaa K'e on June 3, 2023. Photo: Submitted

GNWT defends Sambaa K’e fire staffing in face of criticism


The NWT government said wildfires are “not a numbers game” amid criticism that too few people are assigned to Sambaa K’e. Meanwhile, a “test fire” went wrong.

A small fire purposefully set on the outskirts of Sambaa K’e – to test whether a larger controlled burn was safe – flared up on Saturday and is now a separate wildfire in its own right. On Sunday, it crossed the community’s airstrip and was being blown in the direction of the lake to the west.

“It is an unfortunate setback – one we’re working hard now to overcome. Crews are currently focused on putting this test fire out,” the NWT government stated, adding that the new fire had caused no reported damage.

But the bigger issue for some residents is the size of those crews, given the presence of the far larger FS001 fire, now 100 kilometres wide, on the community’s southern doorstep.



That fire is now 15 kilometres away from Sambaa K’e, which was evacuated on Wednesday. In a Sunday afternoon update posted to Facebook, the NWT’s wildfire operations agency said there was no meaningful rain in the forecast for the next few days. “It is an extremely challenging situation,” that update stated.

In messages to Cabin Radio on Saturday and Sunday, several residents contrasted what they knew about operations in Sambaa K’e with the scale of responses to the Fort Chipewyan and Kátł’odeeche First Nation fires.

“It is our home,” one resident wrote in a message. “Fort Chip got military support. The Hay River Reserve got their support right away, and Trout” – Trout Lake was Sambaa K’e’s former name – “is only left with 10 members that stayed behind, an ignition crew and three fire crews.”

A person who identified themselves as a firefighter working on the Sambaa K’e fire wrote in a separate message: “This is probably one of the biggest fires in all the Americas but they only have three crews on it, with one crew not even a full crew, too.



“Some of us are getting sick from being hot and cold and wet most of the day. We are pushing through the days, but it feels like we can only do so much.

“I feel very anxious and most nights I can’t get to sleep. We hear things passing by, like, ‘It’s looking like there’s nothing we can do,’ and stuff like that. Which doesn’t put confidence in our work.”

Asked how the fire is being staffed, the NWT government provided its latest figures and said the number of people assigned is not the whole story.

“Resourcing a fire is not simply a numbers game. It is about having the right people for the tactics you intend to use,” stated Mike Westwick, an NWT government fire information officer, by email.

“In this case, because of the fire’s extreme size and intensity, we are utilizing indirect tactics, including structure protection, building control lines, and looking towards ignition operations should conditions allow. This is the only option, because the fire cannot be directly attacked due to its size and volatility.

“This requires fewer people than if you were directly attacking a fire – which again, is not a feasible option on this nearly 100-km-wide fire.”

According to Westwick, there are 32 personnel assigned to the fire with at least 16 more on the way. Those reinforcements have been held up by intensely smokey conditions that have ruled out air travel. (Sambaa K’e has no road access outside winter.) He confirmed that 10 members of the community had stayed behind to help.

Westwick said three four-person crews are at the fire, plus two ignition specialists, a structure protection specialist, two bulldozers, four helicopters, five air tankers, two bird dog aircraft and a four-person incident management team.



“Sambaa K’e is also a community of roughly 100 people. There are far fewer structures and less infrastructure than an area like the Kátł’odeeche First Nation or Hay River, which means fewer personnel needed to do the job,” he wrote.

“It is also a community covering less area in terms of land. This, again, means fewer resources required to get the job done.

“The stark reality of a fire this size, with the conditions it is currently burning under, is that if you put every firefighter in the territory on this fire, it would still continue to grow without significant rainfall.”

Westwick said military assistance would not be suitable as their skills are ordinarily directed at logistics or mop-up operations, not this fire’s current “highly active phase.”

“If this fire weren’t generating as much smoke, we would be able to get additional people there quickly – and we will, when an opening presents itself,” he wrote.

“We completely understand how difficult it is for folks from Sambaa K’e to watch anxiously and hope for good news.

“Please just know we are doing absolutely everything we can, and working tirelessly every day, to keep the things they value safe and protected.”