A soon-to-be-released documentary follows one NWT woman and her family as they live through the territory’s worst wildfire season on record.
Roxane Landry and her family star in Yellowknife filmmaker Jeremy Emerson’s documentary Summer of Smoke, which will feature in November’s Yellowknife International Film Festival.
“My whole family was affected from the summer of 2014, in all areas of our life – right down to our health, our mental health, our diet, and our spirituality,” says Landry in a trailer for the documentary.
Emerson began creating the documentary with Ecology North after research led in part by the environmental non-profit suggested 2014’s wildfires wrought both acute and long-term impacts on people’s mental and emotional well-being. Kirsten Carthew was a story consultant on the project.
The summer of 2014 inflicted the most intense wildfire season in living memory on the Northwest Territories, burning by some estimates more than three million hectares of land.
Almost 400 fires burned in the NWT that season, leading the territorial government to spend more than $55 million – over eight times its budget – trying to bring some of them under control.
Affected residents spent more time indoors as weeks of smoke endured, leading some to suffer respiratory issues. Several health problems got worse: visits to clinics and emergency rooms went up as reports of issues like coughs, asthma, and pneumonia increased in Yellowknife.
“Livelihood and land-based activities were disrupted for some … which had negative consequences for mental, emotional, and physical well-being,” the 2017 study – part of a project partnering Ecology North with local physicians and researchers – stated.
The documentary was filmed in Fort Providence, Kakisa, and Yellowknife, charing the effect of the summer’s wildfires on Landry and her family. Landry, Emerson said, was “not afraid to talk and was able to paint pictures, speak in a visual language of the effects.”
He said: “There are certain things in her life that made the stress of the smoke a little bit more. The effects were more on her because she had health problems.”
Landry speaks of the mental health impacts many faced, including isolation, anxiety, and stress. Some residents had to leave their homes, including the entire community of Kakisa. “It’s kind-of traumatic for people, leaving their community behind and hoping that there will be something left when they come back,” Emerson said.
‘Robbed’ of summer
Emerson was away from Yellowknife on the first day the smoke really hit the city, a day some residents considered to be practically apocalyptic. Instead, he watched it unfold via social media.
“Some of the storm clouds kind-of mixed together to make it quite dark and eery. The street lights came on because it was so dark in the middle of the day,” he recalls. Returning to Yellowknife for the rest of the summer, he noticed feeling lethargic and sick – and watched a film slowly gather on items in the yard.
Not being able to have a summer had a big impact on people across the territory.
“People have been cooped up all winter and then can’t wait for summer to happen and they’re outdoors a lot,” Emerson said. “But you feel like you were robbed of a summer when you get a summer like that, which is just full of smoke and just dark and gloomy.”
Summer of Smoke examines the resiliency that people build when they experience conditions like these. “That’s part of the message we’re sending, is there are things we can do to mitigate,” said Emerson. “Have clean air shelters we can go to, have filtration systems, have the field house or gyms and stuff where you can go and socialize with people and not feel so isolated.”
The City of Yellowknife, as an emergency measure, did open its fieldhouse to residents for free that summer.
In addition, the 2017 study found a need for education and adaptation at the community level. “These initiatives include preparation prior to wildfire seasons, effective communication during wildfire and smoke events, and broad consultation following wildfire seasons that recognize and value the contributions of local knowledge to planning processes for subsequent wildfires,” the study found.
Emerson found the documentary posed the challenge of balancing people’s stories with the research on which the project is based.
“We wanted it not to be a PSA,” he said, using the common acronym for a public service announcement. “We wanted it to be a documentary that could be on TV and people will actually be interested in watching it. To be entertaining but also informative.”
A 30-minute version of the documentary will screen on November 9 as part of the Yellowknife International Film Festival.
Following that screening, Ecology North will make the film available to communities across the NWT for free. It will also screen on Northwestel community cable, one of the film’s partners.
Emerson hopes it travels beyond the NWT, to conferences and academic circles, where it can be used to discuss the mental and physical health impacts of severe wildfire seasons.
“It’s a problem that’s bigger than the Northwest Territories,” he said.