A file image of firefighters working to firesmart a community in the Northwest Territories. Photo: NWT Fire
Yellowknife residents will see work begin this weekend to install sprinklers and build fire breaks on the west side of the city.
After performing no firesmarting for the past two years, the City of Yellowknife said on Saturday that work was now beginning “based on expert advice” that would aim to “mitigate any potential future risk to Yellowknife.”
The city said it wanted to “stress that our community is not currently at threat,” though a wildfire west of Yellowknife could close to within 30 km of the municipal boundary on Saturday if it is driven east by the winds as expected.
A special council meeting will now be held at noon on Tuesday to discuss “expenditure of funds on an emergency basis for wildfire mitigation/risk reduction within the municipal boundary.”
“Residents may see large equipment operating [to the west of the city] as crews commence operations,” a city spokesperson stated.
“These measures are precautionary, and more information on the situation will become available as it develops.”
That work comes at the same time as federal wildfire protection funding not due to arrive until next year was being released early, with a view toward helping Northwest Territories communities in emergency situations.
Some $20 million in disaster mitigation funding was set to come on-stream in 2024. Twenty-nine of the territory’s communities can use the fund for activities like creating fire breaks and getting rid of vegetation that fires could use as fuel.
At the time, the aim was to improve the general protective measures communities take each year.
But now, with multiple communities facing wildfires near their doorstep, the NWT Association of Communities – which led the application for the cash – told Cabin Radio the money is being made available early.
“It was supposed to be in 2024 that we would start doing actual work on the ground,” said Sara Brown, the association’s chief executive officer.
“Once we were five evacuations in … it became pretty evident that we couldn’t wait.
“We’ve let the communities know what their funding amounts are. The reality is they’re going to proceed. They’re not going to wait. And we wanted to make them aware that those dollars are there.”
Communities were contacted over the past week with the news, Brown said. The fund works by reimbursing communities for eligible costs, rather than delivering up-front payments.
Brown thanked the federal and territorial governments, alongside the land and water boards that cover the NWT, for their collaboration in releasing the funding earlier than originally planned.
The money comes from the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, or DMAF. In an unusual application, the NWT Association of Communities orchestrated a joint bid from virtually all of the territory’s communities for the cash. The application’s success was announced last year.
“Fundamentally, it will be to construct fire breaks and perform fuel management as per their community wildfire protection plan,” Brown said of how each community will ultimately use its share.
City ‘developing options’
On Friday, the City of Yellowknife told Cabin Radio its general plan would be to spend the money advancing firesmarting priorities contained in its own wildfire protection plan.
However, aspects of more immediate work – with fires west and north of the city causing at least some concern – could also qualify.
“At this time, we are working closely with GNWT’s ECC to develop options to mitigate any potential wildfire risks, including site-planning for establishment of fire breaks and installation of sprinklers,” spokesperson Kerry Thistle wrote.
“The city will work with NWTAC to assess eligibility of any work undertaken to confirm if it can be covered by the DMAF funds.”
In late July, Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty revealed that the city has not conducted firesmarting work – the act of preemptively clearing brush and other potential fire fuels – for the past two years.
Alty insisted that pause on firesmarting work was not a concern.