Communities in the Sahtu are preparing themselves for a potentially hazardous flooding season as the Mackenzie River starts to break up.
Flooding has devastated communities in the Dehcho region, with hundreds of people in Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River displaced.
Ice on the Mackenzie River broke near Tulita on Wednesday, Mayor Douglas Yallee said. Though water levels “seems to be stable” at the moment, Yallee said, the ice has been more stagnant than normal.
The hamlet has been on flood watch since May 7.
“Right now, we’re monitoring the water level because the ice is just sitting out there,” Yallee said. “You need the water level to come up for the ice to move, but we don’t know how high it’s going to come. That’s the issue.”
Yallee said about 10 homes in the community would be seriously affected if flooding occurs. Hamlet staff have been working with those households to move heavy equipment to higher ground and empty fuel and sewage tanks.
Plans are in place to use the hamlet’s Chief Albert Wright School as an emergency shelter if an evacuation takes place.
Yallee said it’s been difficult to predict what will happen this year. The season has already been a unique one.
“Last year, the ice went toward the west side of the river,” he said. “Now, the ice break is this side toward where the community is. I don’t know what’s happening.
“It’s not normal. Climate change has really twisted everything around here.”
A day earlier, Fort Good Hope incident commander Roger Plouffe told Cabin Radio the community was on flood watch and had helped 12 households prepare for possible evacuation.
Plouffe said unusual water levels and ice conditions made the community wary of using the river this past winter.
“It has changed their hunting habits and everything else – that’s how afraid they are of crossing this ice, because it’s that dangerous,” he said.
“The Elders are saying they haven’t seen this before, so this is a brand-new scenario for them. The ice conditions are not known this way. The height of the river is new. So it’s all quite unpredictable.”
Norman Wells ready to help
In Norman Wells, Mayor Frank Pope said his community was watching the river but “not overly concerned.”
“Our water is not that high right now but I imagine, once it comes past Wrigley and breakup gets past Tulita, we’ll see a pretty sudden influx in water volume here, too,” Pope said.
Preparations are under way in the town to welcome evacuees from Fort Good Hope and Tulita if required.
“We are making cots available within our community hall,” Pope said. “We’re getting bedding put together in case we need it. We have the Covid houses we got from Imperial Oil, which we can make available very quickly in case we have evacuees coming into the community.”
Another 20 rooms will be available for use at the Heritage Hotel. The school will serve as a last resort if necessary. Pope estimated the community can accommodate at least 100 people.
Tulita, Norman Wells, and Fort Good Hope are in close contact with one another to monitor the river and offer warnings, and are in touch with the Dehcho community of Wrigley – where there was said to be no immediate concern related to flooding.
From Wrigley, breakup typically takes about a week to get to Tulita, then two days from Tulita to Norman Wells and another three days before it hits Fort Good Hope.