With summer on its way and wildfire season not far behind, Fort Simpson wants the NWT government to work on wildfire protection around its boundaries.
Village councillors passed a resolution at a May 19 meeting requesting that the territorial government follow up on a community wildfire protection plan created in 2011.
That plan highlighted risks from vegetation like brush around the residential areas of Nogha Heights and Wild Rose Acres, both of which were labelled high-to-extreme risk zones for fires.
Mayor Sean Whelly says little has been done to complete the work proposed in that community protection plan nine years ago.
Whelly said Premier Caroline Cochrane had “acknowledged that was something on their list of requests to make to the federal government.”
He added: “The question, I guess, is why did it take so long? Why is it now 2020, and the plan came out in 2011, and we’re still talking about how to firesmart these subdivisions?”
Ken Lambert is a homeowner in Wild Rose Acres. He sits on the village’s emergency planning committee.
He believes the biggest fire risks are brush left from clearing in previous winters and trees killed off by bug infestation.
“It’s such a big area that when you combine the over-mature forest and the spruce budworm that we had 25 years ago, there’s a lot of dead standing timber all over the place here,” he said. “So it’s ready to burn.”
Jobs in the pandemic?
Whelly said firesmarting work like this will help economic recovery in smaller NWT communities feeling the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions.
“We’ve got to look at how to reactivate some of the workforce,” he said, anticipating the possible end of the federal emergency benefit program this fall.
“What’s there to put people to work as they look at a long, dry winter? Because they will not have had enough weeks built up for EI, and they won’t have any savings.”
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) said the 2011 plan was updated in 2019 and delivered to communities in February this year. ENR expects to meet village officials this week to coordinate work set out in the plan.
Mature trees and deadfall behind the fence line of a home in Wild Rose Acres are seen in a submitted photo.
“Every year, when not assigned to preparedness or suppression work on fires, ENR crews assist the community with mitigation work,” said the department by email.
“This includes work to reduce wildfire risk in an area around Wild Rose Acres. This work is best done in the fall as firesmart activities can disrupt migratory birds that nest in the NWT in the summer.”
ENR did not directly address Whelly’s suggestion that little work had taken place since 2011, but said there was ongoing pruning and thinning work in both Wild Rose Acres and Nogha Heights “with the goal of reducing burnable material.”
The department said it had helped the village widen an existing fireguard in 2018 and 2019, which was a recommendation in the plan.
Lambert, however, questioned the value of some of that work.
“The hand clearing they did? All they did was take out the good firewood for themselves and burned up a bunch of money on labour and left a bunch of brush piles, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
“It’s of no value as a defence in a forest fire.”
‘All of these projects are incomplete’
Residents of Wild Rose Acres and Nogha Heights have spent time clearing their yards ahead of the summer wildfire season. Whelly said the village offered to remove deadfall and cuttings as part of a community cleanup.
“We don’t want [residents] burning up there. We’re concerned here about a fire starting right inside the community,” said the mayor.
“Now the onus is on the territorial government to do something with the commissioner’s land behind all these lots. I think that those [residents’] efforts might get wasted if there isn’t more of a buffer created on the outside edge of those residential areas.
“And I mean, this is not our opinion. This is ENR’s report from 2011 that says those areas are high-to-extreme areas that need attention.”
To the east, Lambert said there is a fire break with no trees or vegetation – but there remain brush piles from winter work that could be detrimental to firefighting efforts.
“They’ve got a bunch more brush piles they made this winter,” he said. “All of these projects are incomplete and unfinished. And they’re not defendable.
“Because of the incomplete clearing you’ve got brush piles that are so tinder-dry, all you’d have to do is drop the spark on them – and you’d have a larger problem than you started with.”