Yellowknife’s fire division will formally stop fighting structure fires on the Ingraham Trail from April 1, 2021, following a narrow vote at city council on Monday evening.
Councillors voted five to four in favour of ceasing the service, which has been informally offered to trail residents for decades but which City Hall said was putting residents at risk.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s senior administrator, said there was a risk both that the fire division could be too thinly stretched and that Ingraham Trail residents would unduly rely “on a service we can’t always provide.”
Bassi-Kellett said money was not a factor, as reducing service to the Ingraham Trail would not save the city cash.
Councillors’ approval of the fire division’s new level of service – from April onward – means ambulance and rescue services will still be offered outside city limits, but firefighters will no longer respond to fires at Ingraham Trail cabins or homes. (They will still support territorial wildfire crews dealing with forest fires along the trail, as required.)
Councillors Shauna Morgan, Julian Morse, Cynthia Mufandaedza, and Rommel Silverio opposed that change. Mayor Rebecca Alty had the deciding vote, backed by Niels Konge, Steve Payne, Stacie Smith, and Robin Williams.
Arguments centred on two issues. On the one hand, the city says it has never guaranteed coverage of the Ingraham Trail and this change simply formalizes that. On the other, residents say taking this step leaves them entirely alone if a fire breaks out – unless the NWT government steps in.
“Let’s not make Ingraham Trail residents the victims of an unresolved issue between the city and the GNWT,” said resident Les Harrison, highlighting many years of uncertainty regarding which level of government should be responsible for Ingraham Trail fires.
“If council votes to end fire suppression services, this places residents on the Ingraham Trail at risk. We urge you not to put us in this position,” Harrison told councillors.
“If I phone the fire department and they don’t come to a fire affecting my house, I can’t tell you what I would do. You know it would be very difficult for the fire department to refuse to respond. I’m asking council to take a logical approach and focus on the discussion with the GNWT and with residents.”
Councillor Konge, responding, told Harrison: “As council, we’re not really responsible for you. You didn’t get the opportunity to vote for us. We’re responsible for the people within our boundary. We’ve committed to listen to the people within our boundary.
“That dialogue should be between the residents of the Ingraham Trail and your elected officials, not the elected officials in Yellowknife.”
Harrison, however, said the city had made itself part of that conversation by providing fire coverage for so long.
“Whether you did this in error or not, the reality is for the last 20, 30, 40 years, you’ve been providing fire services to the trail,” he replied.
“You’ve created an accountability for yourselves. Now you’re trying to get out of it. I get it – I get why – but you can’t get out of it that easily.”
Old deal was ‘we come if we can’
Bassi-Kellett earlier said the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs had been made aware in May of the city’s plan to reduce fire coverage, and she had spoken with the department’s deputy minister on the matter in July.
However, she said, since that time, “we haven’t had the ability to connect or say anything more on this.”
Bassi-Kellett said that if councillors wanted the service to continue, there would be a need to mitigate the risk of providing those services and potentially leaving Yellowknife residents without full coverage while fire crews respond to fires on the trail. How that risk could be readily mitigated, she said, was not clear.
Alty said formalizing the lack of Ingraham Trail fire service was important, as there had never been clear guidance suggesting trail residents were covered – even though the fire division had responded as best it could.
The mayor characterized the service to this point as “we come if we can,” saying trail residents expected the city’s firefighters to come, but the city had never been able to guarantee that.
She concluded by suggesting the city remained open to finding a way forward despite signing off on the reduction in service.
For example, Alty said, the city would be interested in discussing with the GNWT the prospect of contracting its firefighters to provide some level of Ingraham Trail service.
Some of the trail’s residents have, in turn, called on the GNWT to step in.
“Are there ways trail residents can contribute and support these essential services? I believe the GNWT and the Legislative Assembly of the NWT, specifically our MLA Rylund Johnson, should step in to support their constituents,” resident Ariel Stuart told councillors and MLAs by letter on Monday.
Johnson had last month urged city councillors to preserve Yellowknife’s fire coverage of the Ingraham Trail, whose residents are his constituents.
“There are several communities throughout the territory in similar size and smaller than the population of the Ingraham Trail,” Stuart continued.
“They all receive emergency services, so why can’t we?”