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Jane Park, Parks Canada incident commander. Photo: Parks Canada
Jane Park, Parks Canada incident commander. Photo: Parks Canada

Fort Smith evacuation: Why the call was made

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The Town of Fort Smith says a Parks Canada recommendation led to Saturday’s decision to evacuate the community. Parks Canada’s incident commander explained the call.

Incident commander Jane Park said the issue is that strong winds could drive more of Fire 7 toward stretches of Highway 5 nearer Fort Smith in the coming days. If the community itself did end up being threatened, a compromised highway would make an evacuation much more complicated.

Declaring an evacuation now, while firefighters still feel confident of keeping the highway open for the rest of Saturday, gives residents time to get out by car before the situation worsens.

A map shows satellite hot-spots and burn area of a fire outside Fort Smith on August 12, 2023.
A map shows satellite hot-spots and burn area of a fire outside Fort Smith on August 12, 2023.

“By tomorrow, meteorologists have forecast a significant increase in temperature and very strong winds gusting up to 60 km/h, potentially higher,” Park told Cabin Radio on Saturday afternoon.

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“By tomorrow morning, we do expect that the fire and/or smoke may impact the highway. And so the best opportunity for folks to be able to evacuate the Fort Smith area by ground, on the highway, would be in the next eight hours.”

Park said fire crews have known about the coming wind shift for days and have been hard at work not only attacking the fire, but also building a series of containment lines in a bid to protect Fort Smith.

If strong winds persist for days, she acknowledged that the fire becoming a direct threat to the town “could be a possibility.”

Below, read a transcript of our interview with Park.

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This interview was recorded on August 12, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: Give us a sense of what is happening with the fire right now.

Jane Park: We’ve seen some subdued fire behaviour today, but it is starting to become active and we’ve got a lot of equipment and aircraft working on the fire. The issue and the concern that we do have is that within the next 72 hours, we will see a significant increase in wind and fire behaviour that will likely cause the fire to spread significantly over the next couple of days. And so Parks Canada has made a recommendation to the Town of Fort Smith and the GNWT for the surrounding areas to move towards an evacuation order.

Was the recommendation because there’s a concern that the fire might reach the community, or because the fire might jeopardize highway access?

There are some significant winds forecast to start changing tonight. They will make the fire potentially spread to the northeast, towards Highway 5. The concern isn’t so much, as you said, that the fire will reach the Fort Smith area right away within the next day or so – although those winds are supposed to continue for several days, and that could be a possibility. The immediate concern is that the fire behaviour and the smoke will impact the highway, making evacuation more difficult given that Highway 5 is so critical to the egress for people coming out of Fort Smith.

The town has given people a window of the next eight hours. Beyond that point, how much more difficult is it likely to get to be able to leave?

By tomorrow, meteorologists have forecast a significant increase in temperature and very strong winds gusting up to 60 km/h, potentially higher. By tomorrow morning, we do expect that the fire and/or smoke may impact the highway. And so the best opportunity for folks to be able to evacuate the Fort Smith area by ground, on the highway, would be in the next eight hours.

How many resources from Parks Canada, the NWT and Alberta are on this fire right now?

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We’ve started to work closely with the GNWT. Parks Canada’s currently managing the entire western and southern portion of this fire. On our portion of the fire, in collaboration with the GNWT, we have 149 personnel and 14 helicopters. We’ve also been working closely with the GNWT on using some of their air tankers, as well, and working closely with the NWT Department of Infrastructure on the highway to make sure that everybody can evacuate a really orderly way and in a safe manner.

With these strong winds that are coming, what tactics can you use over the next couple of days? What will the approach be?

We’ve been seeing this wind in the forecast for several days. Ourselves and NWT Fire, as well as Alberta, who is managing now the eastern part of the fire – which is south of Fort Smith and Fort Fitzgerald – are all working very hard on containment actions, things like heavy equipment, dozer guards, direct action and suppression by ground crews and helicopters and tankers, all to try to stop the fire from spreading in the direction of the community.

We’ve made a lot of good progress on a lot of those constructed dozer lines. We’re hoping that we have both direct actions against the fire with aircraft and crews and heavy equipment, as well as some contingency lines farther out if those ones that are right up close to the fire fail. We do have secondary containment lines that we’ve put in place as well.

By the time the winds do gust up to 60 km/h, the likelihood is of extreme fire behaviour and really hazardous conditions for aircraft due to visibility and fire behaviour. We may be able to still do action on the back of the fire, but definitely at the head of the fire we will have to likely reposition crews and personnel for their own safety. Super hesitant to have firefighters in the way of that kind of fire behaviour in those conditions.