Cabins outside Tulita were destroyed by a wildfire as the Sahtu reached the hottest temperatures on record for some communities.
As residents mourned the loss of cabins at 12 Mile Point, Tulita staged a limited evacuation on Sunday to help vulnerable people escape acrid smoke from nearby wildfires,
“All the Elders and all the kids are out with their parents. They sent them over to Délı̨nę,” said former Tulita resident Bobby Clement, who had been in touch with relatives and officials throughout the weekend. (Clement helps to run a Facebook group that monitors extreme weather and its effects in Alberta and the North.)
The Hamlet of Tulita said it had joined with the Tulita Dene Band, Tulita Land Corporation and Fort Norman Métis to order charter flights.
The cabin losses came amid a weekend of extreme heat in the Sahtu.
Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope both posted record highs on Saturday, Environment Canada said.
In a bulletin issued on Sunday morning, the federal agency reported preliminary data showing that Norman Wells reached 37.9C and Fort Good Hope hit 37.4C.
The regions around both communities had previous records of 35C.
The extraordinary heat came within days of Inuvik setting a new all-time high of 33C on Tuesday last week.
More extremely hot weather is forecast for the days ahead. Daily highs in much of the Sahtu are expected to remain at 30C or above.
‘Extreme fire weather’
Temperatures in Tulita reached almost 37C on Saturday – not quite as warm as the record of 37.9C set in July 2020, but a further worry for residents, with one wildfire burning east of the community and another destroying cabins near 12 Mile Creek, to the southeast across the Mackenzie River.
Clement said five cabins had burned.
While the wildfire on the same side of the river as Tulita is said not to be getting any closer – a large and recent burn area exists between the fire and the community – the separate fire on the river’s south side moved “extremely fast,” the NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change said.
By Sunday evening, that fire was said by the department to have burned through 14,000 hectares.
“High temperatures paired with aggressive southeast winds created extreme fire weather conditions, which caused the fire to blow up and race north and west towards the banks of the Mackenzie River,” fire information officer Mike Westwick wrote on Saturday evening regarding the lost cabins.
“It was not possible to start sprinklers today due to low visibility and unsafe conditions. The sprinklers had been installed several days ago, but are not ordinarily run consistently when fire has not approached as they can cause damage to buildings if they were. As a result, this wildfire overwhelmed the area and the protections installed.”
That fire is not currently considered a threat to Tulita, the department stated, but will be reassessed daily after recent “explosive growth.”
In a public notice, the Hamlet of Tulita said an agreement had been reached that covered the cost of flights to help Elders, young children and their caregivers, and anyone with respiratory illnesses leave the community over concerns about smoke in the air.
“We are asking the public to please remain calm and stay vigilant. Pointing fingers and blame does not help the situation. Instead, let’s try to come together, support one another and work together to get through this difficult time,” the hamlet’s public notice stated.
Even so, some residents expressed devastation and anger at the burning of cabins at 12 Mile.
One member of a family whose cabin was reported lost, writing online, said firefighters should have taken more action to address the fire south of the river, having been warned by community members of the threat they felt it posed.
Clement, who said his daughter married into a family whose cabins were lost, said: “This was their soul, where they went for family time.”
“Everybody’s pointing fingers at each other,” he added, describing concern that the situation could become similar to a particularly bad wildfire Sahtu residents remember from 1995.
The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs maintains that communities are responsible for declaring evacuations and making key decisions around when to leave or return, but Clement said the chartering of flights at the weekend was partly a response to community anxiety that the department was not acting quickly enough. The department has been approached for comment.
Responding to similar concerns about firefighting tactics, Westwick said fire crews’ “hearts go out to everyone whose property has been impacted” and the territory would look at offering support through a fire damage assistance program.
“Resources are stretched given the severe fire season we are experiencing in the NWT and across Canada,” Westwick wrote.
“Our commitment to people of the Northwest Territories is that we will continue doing everything we can to protect people, communities, and other things people value across the NWT.”
Meanwhile, the GNWT said a separate wildfire outside Norman Wells was not a threat to the town.
Fire VQ003 is approximately 10 km north of the town, the GNWT stated on Sunday evening.
“This fire is highly visible from the community and waterways in the area – generating lots of discussion. It is behind a large ridge with no fuel to burn. As a result, it is not considered a threat to Norman Wells,” the territory stated.
Another wildfire, 45 km southeast of Fort McPherson, is reported to be within a kilometre of the Dempster Highway. The road was reported to be open as of Sunday evening but drivers were warned to expect heavy smoke overnight and the possibility that the highway could be closed.