Yellowknife’s firefighters may soon stop responding to fires along the Ingraham Trail – but trail residents wonder who will help if the city doesn’t.
Councillors struggled to agree in a near three-hour debate on Monday after city staff proposed to halt fire services on the trail by April 1, 2021.
Virtually all of the Ingraham Trail, otherwise known as Highway 4, lies outside the city boundary to the north. Some homes are a 45-minute drive away or more.
At the moment, Yellowknife’s fire division responds to fires on the trail provided firefighters aren’t busy with other incidents in the city itself.
If a fire crew is called out, trail residents are required to foot the bill.
Yet the fire division says that pay-per-use model doesn’t fully cover the cost, while sending personnel and equipment up the trail could leave the city without resources if a fire broke out in Yellowknife.
That’s why the fire division’s proposal for the coming year suggests dropping services for the trail.
Councillor Niels Konge agreed with that plan, insisting services on the trail are the responsibility of the GNWT, not the city.
“I do not understand how this, in any which way, shape, or form, is a city issue,” he said. “We are responsible to our boundary. That’s what we’re responsible for.”
Shauna Morgan and Julian Morse, on the other hand, were more hesitant about cutting the services back.
Morse emphasized the importance of being clear with the public.
“I think we should ensure that we’re being comprehensive and fulsome in listing what we do and don’t provide,” he said. “We can say we’re not providing a service all we want, but when a resident has a fire, they’re going to call 911. And I think they’re going to be quite shocked if they get the answer, ‘Sorry.’”
Morgan pointed out that those on the trail are members of the city community, as well.
“It’s not as if these are people coming from a different planet,” she said. “These are people with many connections to Yellowknife, and I think we need to consider the impact on them.”
‘Not worth a 30-minute drive’
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the suggested date of the change, April 1, gives the city and territory time to come up with alternative arrangements and communicate the change.
Yet several residents along the Ingraham Trail are already worried about the city’s proposal.
Les Harrison has lived on the trail for around six years. He said he and fellow residents weren’t notified that the issue was going to be discussed during Monday’s meeting.
“This is a fairly serious decision that could impact all of the Ingraham Trail,” he said. “The first concern would be that we weren’t properly made aware of this decision.”
Dwight Grabke, another resident whose family has lived on the trail for four generations, told Cabin Radio even the discussion saddened him.
“It’s a time when we’re all at home, we’re feeling more alone, more isolated,” he said. “You are kind-of missing that sense of community already. And then you have something like this come up that just basically tells you that – as members of the community who own businesses, are employees and healthcare workers, students, teachers – we’re indirectly being told that our lives and our homes aren’t worth a 30-minute drive.”
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, represents residents of the Ingraham Trail. At Monday’s meeting he said the proposal to drop fire coverage had generated “the most [responses he’s] ever gotten on a constituent issue.”
“It is very clear that everyone I’ve talked to who owns a cabin on the trail, or lives out there, or runs a business wants fire service,” he said. “I think it is a very much-needed service, and I think the best economic argument is that the City of Yellowknife provide that service.”
Underfunding and tax hikes
Johnson added he didn’t think it feasible for the GNWT to set up an alternative fire response, but Konge took exception to that statement.
“I find it humorous that the GNWT, an MLA, yourself, is saying that we need to do this,” he said.
“We’ve asked the GNWT to do so much for us. That doesn’t happen. You underfund us to the tune of $11 million a year since 2014.
“Perhaps if we hadn’t been underfunded, and as a council we felt we had some money, this wouldn’t even be an issue.”
Councillors discussed a number of potential alternatives, including businesses creating their own fire response, expanding the territory’s wildfire response to cover the trail, and hiking taxes to help cover costs.
Johnson suggested a partnership between the territory and the city, saying he is “very much willing” to work with the city to establish a funding arrangement.
Harrison said he personally would be all for higher taxes for continued service, but he doesn’t think it is realistic to expect residents on the trail to form their own fire service – another suggestion brought up in Monday’s meeting.
The issue will be brought forward to council’s September 14 meeting for further discussion and a vote.