A one-line change to Fort Simpson’s wildfire protection plan appears to transfer some responsibilities from the GNWT to the village, which seems blindsided.
The 2019 version of the plan, its first update in eight years, was presented to mayor and council in February. The plan sets out different wildfire risks to Fort Simpson and how to mitigate them.
However, the 2019 plan changes the land status authority – in other words, the government responsible for some of the work – from the NWT government to the Village of Fort Simpson.
The village says it wasn’t informed of that change in responsibilities.
The 2019 plan states Fort Simpson is now responsible for clearing trees and brush from fire buffer zones on NWT-owned Commissioner’s land that falls within Fort Simpson’s municipal boundary.
The 2011 plan said the NWT government was responsible for that.
The buffer zones are vital as much of the land around Fort Simpson’s residential areas, particularly Nogha Heights and Wild Rose Acres, is considered a high to extreme-risk zone for wildfires.
Fort Simpson’s mayor, Sean Whelly, says the change in responsibility is news to him – and could have significant consequences.
Until now, the village had been trying to get the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) to do the work.
“It’s either an administrative error or it’s intentional and we’ll have to get to the bottom of it,” Whelly told Cabin Radio, “because it’s hard to ask ENR to do the work that needs to be done if they’re saying we’re responsible.
“I mean, if the department here wants to leave town and leave their budget with the village, maybe we’ll be able to do something.
“Turn the lands over, give us their department, and hand over the money.”
‘A questionable shift’
Two representatives from the department – forests manager Marti Lys and forest officer Matt Lavoie – presented the new version of the plan to Fort Simpson councillors on February 10.
While the change in authority was briefly mentioned at that meeting, there was no discussion of the switch. Precisely when the change took place is not clear.
An ENR spokesperson said the Commissioner’s land in question, within Fort Simpson’s boundaries, is generally administered by the NWT government. However, the spokesperson said, “as it falls within the Village of Fort Simpson development area, the municipality has the responsibility to maintain it.”
Whelly disagrees. He says the village has no definitive authority over the land and would have to apply to the territorial government for a land transfer to make changes to it.
“They are the current owners,” he said. “The village does have the responsibility to do community planning. The village can identify, through zoning, what types of activities will proceed within municipal boundaries.
“However, say a new subdivision on Commissioner’s land was planned – the land would first need to be transferred to the village.”
Whelly said the village only has the authority to deny cutting permits and any land transfer process would need to include the Dehcho First Nations under an agreement signed in 2001.
“Referring to the village as the land status authority is a questionable shifting of responsibility and it is not based on any real changes in legislation or ongoing land claims. It is more of a word play,” Whelly said.
Prevention cheaper than remediation
Whelly said the territorial government has been underfunding communities and most municipalities don’t have the funds to take on the added responsibility of fire mitigation.
In late May, Premier Caroline Cochrane said that annual funding gap – between the money municipalities say they need and the funding the NWT government provides – stood at $41 million as of 2019.
Whelly says the funding gap in Fort Simpson amounts to around $3 million.
“If the Village of Fort Simpson is underfunded by $3 million, how does it make sense to shift the new responsibility for wildfire protection onto the municipal government?” he asked.
“What’s the purpose of doing something like shifting responsibility to the municipality when they know we don’t have any funds specifically earmarked for forest management?”
The NWT government told Cabin Radio local governments were “not expected to do this work alone” and both funding and human resources were provided to help reduce wildfire risks, though specific details for Fort Simpson were not given.
“ENR continues to work with the Village of Fort Simpson and other GNWT departments to coordinate efforts to reduce the risk from wildfire around Fort Simpson,” said a departmental spokesperson.
Whelly worries the apparent shift in responsibility could mean another year passes with no work to improve the fire buffer zones around one of the territory’s most at-risk communities.
“We can’t fight fires with no money,” he said.
“When a fire is burning toward your community, you can plan all you want, you’re not going to put out the fire. You can’t put a fire out with planning.”