A Łútsël K'é Co-op truck waits beside an Ahmic Air aircraft. Photo: Submitted
As traffic in and out of Yellowknife is disrupted by an evacuation order, at least one fly-in community says residents are concerned about access to essential goods.
Joe Yatkowski is the general manager of the Co-op in Łútsël K’é, the only store serving a community of more than 300 people on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Łútsël K’é can only be reached by boat or aircraft and ordinarily relies on Yellowknife for resupply flights.
Yatkowski says that since daily flights to the community stopped arriving from Yellowknife, which has been under evacuation order since Wednesday night, the store has struggled to keep shelves stocked.
Yatkowski said the last regularly scheduled plane arrived in Łútsël K’é on Wednesday morning last week. By that afternoon, he said, the community was told no more planes would be coming.
“Usually we get bread Fridays, as well as more produce and milk, but they just said no more planes, and we couldn’t get an answer out of them,” Yatkowski said.
“I didn’t have a whole lot in stock when all this went, and then to be suddenly cut off? Man, everybody kind-of ran on the store.”
By Friday afternoon, Yatkowski said, the Co-op’s shelves were bare. That included stocks of milk for infants, which he said is needed by several families in Łútsël K’é, as well as additional families who evacuated to the community from Yellowknife.
In an email separately shared with Cabin Radio, Air Tindi – the airline that services the community – told customers that in the event of a Yellowknife evacuation order, it planned to move all aircraft and workers to Alberta. It noted that could happen with “little to no notice and cause a disruption of service,” urging customers to have a back-up plan for flight requirements.
A second email sent on Wednesday afternoon, ahead of the official evacuation order, stated the situation was “deteriorating quickly” and all flights after 3pm that day would be cancelled.
Yatkowksi said in the absence of regularly scheduled flights, the Co-op looked into getting a plane from Saskatoon, which he was told would cost $50,000 for 7,000 pounds of freight, or $65,000 if diverted to Edmonton.
The store was then able to get in contact with Air Tindi, he said, and hire a charter from Edmonton.
That plane arrived in Łútsël K’é on Sunday and Yatkowski said the Co-op “bulked up” on non-perishable goods like canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, and baking supplies. He said around 200 pounds of fresh produce “disappeared in about half an hour” on Monday, even with buying limits in place.
The Co-op was also able to procure some meat, bread and eggs on Monday, after being informed there was room for around 800 pounds of freight on another charter headed to the community. Yatkowski said that plane had been hired by a company to pick up an out-of-territory worker who had become stranded in Łútsël K’é.
“It’s just not enough,” he said of the current food supply system. “We are stressed to the seams here.”
Yatkowski said he hasn’t received a final invoice for the initial charter to fly in food, but believes it will cost around $50,000. He said $5,000 is the normal cost to fly in 7,000 pounds of freight, a fee reduced with help from the Nutrition North subsidy.
Yatkowski said even with the nearby tourist destination Frontier Lodge paying for half of that flight, the charter is still costly for the Co-op. To avoid higher food costs for residents, he said the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation agreed to contribute some funding it receives from mining companies through impact benefit agreements.
Yatkowski said continuing to hire expensive charters isn’t sustainable and, if the store has to raise costs, community members won’t be able to afford food.
“We’re just here trying to feed the community,” he said. “That’s all I really care about right now. Profit this month is out the window. I want to get food on the shelf.”
Communities ‘need something concrete’
Chris Reynolds, president of Air Tindi, said on Monday Yellowknife’s airport remains closed except for essential flights such as medevacs and those related to firefighting or evacuation.
His airline is operating resupply flights from Edmonton until that changes, he said, noting that the airline also needs groceries to be available to carry them. At the moment, Yellowknife’s grocery stores are catering only to 1,000 or so essential workers who stayed behind, and getting more groceries to the territorial capital would require trucking them through the wildfire zone.
Acknowledging that the Co-op is currently liable for the cost of charters from Edmonton, he told Cabin Radio he expects the territorial government to help fly-in communities cover additional costs.
“They need something concrete, right?” he said of businesses like the Łútsël K’é Co-op awaiting more detail from government agencies.
“I’m kind-of hoping for some relief eventually, too, for all of our charges for our evacuation flights and everything else, but I think that’s so far down the list for the GNWT,” Reynolds added.
“We’re hoping, with the kind-of better steps that the fire is taking, that we’re able to get some crews in and they can open up Yellowknife Airport a little bit more.”
At a Monday evening press conference, Department of Infrastructure regional superintendent Jeffrey Edison said Yellowknife’s airport is open to essential flights, including community resupply.
Asked for clarification at a subsequent press conference on Tuesday, Edison reiterated that the airport was open and the territorial government is working to increase the number of flights available to bring food and supplies to communities.
In an email later that night, Wesley Cook, a spokesperson for the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, said local food suppliers were working with airlines to serve NWT communities from Edmonton.
He added the territorial government had established a working group to address issues related to supply chains and food security.
“At this time, food suppliers do not believe any communities have missed out on food shipments, although recognize not all supplies have been received,” Cook wrote.
“The GNWT is assessing options for offsetting costs to businesses so that increased costs do not fall on community residents.”