Lyne Maisonneuve poses with a fire truck and firefighting gear found at the Enterprise fire hall. Photo: Lyne Maisonneuve
As the dust settles in Enterprise, Mayor Michael St Amour has one thing to say to three residents who spent a month fending off wildfires from the handful of buildings left.
“Thank you. Thank you,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough. Every time I see them, I thank them. They didn’t have to, they just did it.”
The majority of homes and businesses in the community of 120 people were destroyed by a devastating wildfire driven by winds of up to 80 km/h, forcing residents to flee as an evacuation order was issued at 3pm on Sunday, August 13.
By Sunday evening, the final residents of Enterprise fled the fire in around six to eight vehicles. Mike Kimble and his wife, Lyne Maisonneuve, were among them.
“We could see a big plume of smoke coming through,” said Maisonneuve. “Then it was getting closer and closer. Then it got really dark, and then it was right there. It was pretty scary.”
The fire was described to one Enterprise resident, Paul Flamand, as a “200 or 300-foot wall of flame coming at them” at that point.
Just 20 km south of the hamlet, Kimble and Maisonneuve first tried to park in a gravel pit to wait out the worst, then were ushered to the NWT-Alberta border by RCMP.
“They sent us towards the border and it was just black,” said Kimble. “Eye of the hurricane, I called it.”
By midnight, at the border, the couple were debating with Kimble’s brother, Alan, whether to continue evacuating south or go back. They saw the open road, no roadblock or police patrolling, and Maisonneuve said to her partner: “Let’s go see how far we can go. Maybe we can save our house.”
While Kimble’s brother waited for them at the border, the two drove back to Enterprise.
“Everything was on fire. The ground was on fire, the trees were on fire, the grass was on fire – on both sides of the road,” said Maisonneuve. “We were actually holding hands getting closer to the house, and our hands were all clammy, because we didn’t know what we were going to see next.”
When they turned onto their street, the smoke was thick. They could just make out the glow of a motion light on top of their house.
While the fire raged nearby, their house and those of a few neighbours were intact. “Our whole street was still there, but it was on fire,” said Kimble.
“It was so disgusting, the smell of burning rubber, and tires, and paint and oil,” said Maisonneuve. “Now we’re in hell, burning all over the place.”
The two got to work, helped at one point by a fire truck heading north from High Level, which stopped to assist for more than an hour before moving on to Hay River. Some overnight rain fell, too.
Eventually, Maisonneuve and Kimble retrieved Kimble’s brother from the border and the three returned to fight the fires together. They say they didn’t rest for three days and nights.
“It was around the clock,” said Kimble. “You couldn’t sleep because there could be a flare-up here and another fire there.”
“The energy just comes of out nowhere,” Maisonneuve said.
The three fought fires alone for the first five days, using a fire truck and equipment they found at the fire hall. Because of their work, a handful of buildings in the hamlet were saved, including the couple’s home.
“You just get up in the morning, and all you see is smoke and trees on fire over here and trees on fire over there – you get to a point where you just don’t want to do it any more,” Maisonneuve said. “You’re in hell, or armageddon as I call it, with no people around.”
Flamand, owner of Paul’s Plumbing & Heating, lost his home and office in the fire. His parents’ building was one of the few saved by the firefighting efforts of the Kimble brothers and Maisonneuve.
Returning to the hamlet almost a week after the fire tore through, Flamand immediately began preparing a home for his family in his parents’ building. He has also transformed the building into temporary housing for his carpenter and apprentice, since they both lost their homes to the fire.
When he returned to Enterprise, one of the first things Flamand saw was the Kimble brothers and Maisonneuve fighting fires.
“They’re definitely my heroes,” Flamand said.
The fire that consumed much of Enterprise “moved at a pretty unbelievable speed,” said NWT wildfire information officer Mike Westwick.
Despite being attacked by firefighters within hours of its detection on August 2, the fire was “in no way safe to be putting firefighters in front of” as it ripped across the South Slave on August 13, Westwick said.
By that Sunday, crews were being pulled back because the fire was too dangerous and unpredictable, he said, and visibility too poor for an air attack.
Risk assessment on the fire line is guided by government policy, which prioritizes human life above all else. Other considerations include property and communities, infrastructure, cultural values like critical habitat for wildlife, natural resources, and ecological value. Decisions are also affected by the available resources.
The decision not to keep attacking the fire that devastated Enterprise was a choice that prioritized human life, according to Westwick.
“My heart aches every single day for the folks at Enterprise,” said Westwick. “But the reality is that people come first, property comes second when you’re managing an emergency.”
In the aftermath of the fire, some Enterprise residents returned to help with the cleanup and support the firefighting effort.
Flamand spent more than a week cleaning up wreckage and organizing basics.
“It was surprising to see the little help that was there, even five days after the fact,” said Flamand. “There was just Mike and Al and Lyne, and that’s it.”
St Amour returned to Enterprise the Friday after the fire took the hamlet. Two weeks after the evacuation order, he called the territorial government.
“I went to ECC and asked them what the hell is going on,” said St Amour. “I blew up… Half an hour later, they were out here. But it took me to get upset and scream and yell and swear to get some help out here.”
Emergency aid post-fire has been an ongoing struggle, the mayor said. At a council meeting on Wednesday, 10 temporary homes were approved for purchase on behalf of residents who wish to return to the hamlet.
Hotel stays for Enterprise evacuees affected by the fire have been extended until September 22. The NWT government is considering extending those bookings while a plan is developed.
“We managed to speak to almost all of the evacuees that are still in Alberta to discuss their individual circumstances and what the next steps would be,” said Jay Boast, a spokesperson for the GNWT’s emergency management organization.
“We are working with the community, the Hamlet of Enterprise, to see where residents will stay that have been impacted by fire,” said communities minister Shane Thompson in a recent press conference.
“Then we will work with the community to get a camp in. We’re also look at existing resources in Hay River as well as the hotels.”
St Amour believes the GNWT should do more for Enterprise residents affected by the fires. “They forgot that Enterprise existed,” he said. “There was zero support from the GNWT at all. Nothing.”
NWT Fire says it plans to learn from this fire season, with a thorough review of every fire on the way.
“There is a need for us to learn absolutely everything that we can to inform our fire management program going forward,” said Westwick.
“Certainly, we’ll be taking a very close look at this entire fire season, having those frank discussions, and looking back on anything that could have been done differently, and taking those lessons and applying them.”