This year’s wildfire season has cost the Northwest Territories almost $30 million so far, and it’s nowhere near over yet.
The territory’s environment and climate change minister, Shane Thompson, said the cost was currently between $29 million and $30 million during a briefing for reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
Thompson said hot and dry conditions were having a “huge impact.”
Premier Caroline Cochrane said the territorial government is drafting a letter to the federal government to give a “heads up” that the NWT may need financial support as wildfires continue to burn.
“We’re conscious that the forest fires are expensive, there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “Saving lives is a priority over finances.”
A total of 153 wildfires have burned more than 1.2 million hectares across the territory so far this year, and 128 were actively burning as of Wednesday night. Five communities have had to evacuate due to wildfire, the latest being Behchokǫ̀.
This is the second year since 1999, when Nunavut became a separate territory, that the NWT has seen more than one million hectares burn. In 2014, known as the “summer of smoke,” more than 380 wildfires burned a record 3.4 million hectares.
That year, the territory spent $56.1 million fighting wildfires, equivalent to around $70 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation.
NWT health minister Julie Green said Wednesday 1,050 people had registered at the evacuation centre in Yellowknife. Community members from Behchokǫ̀ have also evacuated to Fort Providence, Enterprise, Hay River, and Whatì.
Green said 125 people remain in the community as they have been assigned to help with fire suppression and infrastructure protection.
“That is not a group of people who are reluctant to leave but rather they have a reason to be there,” she said.
Fire status on Wednesday afternoon
The out-of-control wildfire, labelled ZF015 by the territory’s wildfire agency, is estimated to have burned 100,000 hectares based on satellite detection.
ZF015 reached Behchokǫ̀ on Tuesday night and destroyed three homes in Rae. NWT Fire said the fire travelled 20 kilometres in less than four hours due to extreme winds, and personnel were forced to flee as it advanced on the community.
Responders regrouped early on Wednesday morning with eight crews, three helicopters, a structure protection specialist, heavy equipment and air tankers working to protect Behchokǫ̀ from the wildfire. That included setting up a sprinkler line along the perimeter of Rae, using specialized gel to protect vulnerable structures, and extinguishing spot fires caused by embers.
The wildfire agency said only small sections of the fire have been accessible by air as smoke hampers visibility.
According to the latest update from NWT Fire, as of Wednesday afternoon the fire was burning three kilometres from Edzo at its closest point, 2.5 kilometres east of Frank Channel, and 45 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife. While the wildfire agency said it wasn’t immediately concerned about Edzo, the agency noted that could change quickly.
NWT Fire discouraged people from calling the fire report line about smoke and fire near cabins and homes along Highway 3, saying that line had been “inundated” with calls and staff are aware of what is happening.
The agency said crews were unable to assess structure losses along the highway on Wednesday as they are focused on protecting Behchokǫ̀.