Yellowknife's sandpits on the morning of August 8, 2023. Fire breaks are set to be expanded to the west of the sandpits. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The City of Yellowknife is stepping up work to protect its municipal boundary from wildfires as dry and windy conditions are expected to persist into the fall.
At a special council meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Yellowknife’s mayor and council unanimously approved a request – on an emergency basis – to spend funding on wildfire mitigation and risk reduction within the city.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said that will include creating fire breaks, carrying out site-specific firesmarting, and installing water sprinklers in vulnerable areas.
“It is very important to stress that our community is not currently threatened by fire, but we are at this point looking at taking precautionary measures,” she said.
Bassi-Kellett said priority areas for fire breaks include the bush trail west of the sandpits, around the Engle business district, around the sewage lagoon road from developed areas in Engle up to Fiddler’s Lake – where the city’s sewage force main is located – and along Dehcho Boulevard from the sandpits into the Engle and Kam Lake area.
“We have to take particularly special care to make sure that the force main remains … protected and intact,” she said.
Priority areas for sprinkler installation include Grace Lake (for residents who back onto green space), Kam Lake properties off Enterprise drive, and the back side of Kam Lake to Grace Lake, Bassi-Kellett said.
In a notice, the city asked residents to avoid the sandpits as heavy equipment is being used to expand fire breaks. City Hall said staff had removed sprinklers from city parks and planned to begin installing them in the Kam Lake area on Tuesday.
Bassi-Kellett said two special fire sprinkler trailers, with 100 sprinklers each, have arrived from Alberta, adding to sprinklers the city already owns.
The city is set to receive nearly $2.4 million in federal funding over seven years to increase protection against wildfires. That money comes from a disaster mitigation fund that will provide a total of $20 million over that period to 29 communities across the territory.
Bassi-Kellett said the city does not know the exact amount it plans to spend on fire breaks this year. She said the municipality is working with contractors to refine its estimate, which could be more than the federal funding the city is expecting to receive.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said the city did not complete firesmarting last year due to weather issues, and did not budget for fire breaks this year as it was waiting to access the federal funding.
“We’ll really be able to get a lot of good work done, not only this season, but in years to come thanks to that funding,” she said.
Alty referenced a Conference Board of Canada podcast episode on the economic impact of wildfires, saying federal, territorial, provincial and municipal governments need to come together to proactively firesmart communities.
“They know that leaving all of the firesmarting of communities to the poorest level of governments, the municipal government, leaves communities vulnerable,” she said, “as we’re also working to keep the core infrastructure like water, sewer and waste in good order, and so it’s a big ask to be able to do all that.”
City staff have been meeting daily with the territory’s North Slave wildfire response team since August 1, Bassi-Kellett said, adding dry and windy conditions are expected to continue for the next four to six weeks.
Ninety-two wildfires have burned more than 446,615 hectares across the North Slave this year. Eighty-four are still actively burning.
That includes wildfire ZF015, which destroyed 19 structures in and near Behchokǫ̀, and is currently burning around 35 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife at its closest point. Lightning-caused wildfire ZF085 is burning about 57 kilometres southeast of Yellowknife and 41 kilometres southeast of Dettah.
NWT Fire said plans are being put in place to mitigate potential wildfire risks to Dettah. Bassi-Kellett said city staff are also working with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to refresh them on how to use their sprinklers.
Wildfire ZF011 is burning on the eastern shore of Duncan Lake, about 19 kilometres north of the Ingraham Trail and 18 kilometres north of Hidden Lake Territorial Park. NWT Fire has suggested that cabin owners on the east shore of Prosperous Lake and north shore of Prelude Lake set up and test sprinklers, be prepared to leave the area if it becomes too smoky, and have a self-evacuation plan in place as precautionary measures.