Tulita community members leave in two boats to check on cabins at Old Fort Point on August 3, 2023. Photo: Submitted
A Northwest Territories minister says there is a “huge shortage of firefighters throughout the territory” as Tulita residents race to protect cabins from a nearby wildfire.
Housing minister Paulie Chinna, who represents Tulita as the Sahtu MLA, made the comment as community members pleaded with her and the Department of Environment and Climate Change for more support.
Residents said two boats of volunteers, without NWT government assistance, had departed upstream to check on people at Old Fort Point, where a wildfire was reportedly extremely close to cabins as of Thursday afternoon.
NWT Fire said bad smoke and resulting visibility issues had prevented crews from reaching the cabins “to fill up fuel and run the sprinklers” that had been set up more than two weeks ago to protect those buildings, adding that crews had been out late on Wednesday to ensure the sprinklers ran overnight.
“Air tankers are operational but visibility issues due to smoke meant they could not fly,” the territory’s wildfire agency told Cabin Radio by email on Thursday evening.
“We have air tanker action planned as visibility allows.”
Chinna, responding to pleas for help on Facebook, said she had been told a helicopter and air tanker were sent but could not reach the area because of poor visibility.
“Once the visibility is clear, ECC will be sending firefighters. I’m sorry this is happening to your community but with the weather conditions, it’s difficult for ECC to respond,” the minister wrote.
She later added in a separate message: “There is also a huge shortage of firefighters throughout the territory and the department is in great need right now. I’m so sorry this is happening.”
Appeal for reinforcements
Extra firefighters from places like Alaska, New Brunswick and Ontario have arrived in recent weeks to help the NWT fight nearly 200 active wildfires.
As of Sunday, the territory’s wildfire agency had 140 of its own firefighters in action and, up to that point, had called up 180 extra firefighters from within the territory. On the Behchokǫ̀ wildfire alone, the territory had imported 42 more firefighters from elsewhere in Canada and Alaska.
NWT Fire recently appealed for anyone with firefighter training – or prepared to help crews’ camps operate – to come forward.
But even in areas where the right resources are in place, smoke and poor visibility can badly hamper efforts to save properties.
The fate of the Old Fort Point cabins was not immediately clear on Thursday evening.
Multiple wildfires have raged south and east of Tulita for weeks. The community already suffered the loss of some cabins at 12 Mile Point to a wildfire almost a month ago.
Chinna said she had requested that community leaders be provided with an update on efforts to fight the fire threatening Old Fort Point.
Correction: August 3, 2023 – 22:13 MT. We initially named Paulie Chinna as the infrastructure minister in this report. She isn’t, she’s the housing minister. (Diane Archie holds the infrastructure portfolio.)