One of the worst fire seasons ever in the Northwest Territories has closed down a major hydroelectric plant and forced people in a small community from their homes, officials say.
Officials have logged 123 forest fires this season, and at least 92 are still burning. Most are caused by lightning striking hot, dry forests, which haven't had significant rain since the spring snow melt.
“We’re going through a period of extreme burning conditions across most of the southern N.W.T.,” says Bill Mawdsley, director of forest management with the Department of Environment in Fort Smith. “We’re observing extreme drought. Everything right from the mineral soil right to the top of the trees is burning.”
One fire broke out in the bushes near the Legislative Assembly on Canada Day, just as crowds were gathered across Frame Lake in Yellowknife’s Somba 'Ke Park.
“There were no lightning strikes in that area and we did find a bunch of camps that are set up in the bush there, so it was definitely human error,” says Darcy Hernblad, Yellowknife’s fire chief. “It could have been a cigarette butt, or it could have been someone deliberately setting the fire.”
Hernblad said the Yellowknife fire department has responded to several fires recently, even though a burn ban is in place.
Kakisa evacuated, Taltson back up
The first priority for fire crews is a wildfire burning out of control near the tiny community of Kakisa, which has a population of 45. People were forced out of their homes, to Hay River, over the weekend as fire crews, some from Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan, arrived.
Mawdsley says the fire has broken through fire barriers and is getting closer to the community.
Crews have set up sprinklers to protect infrastructure and are using water bombers to drop water and chemicals. There’s no word on when residents will be able to return home.
A second priority is a fire near the Taltson hydroelectric plant, which provides power to communities south of Great Slave Lake.
The plant, shut down on Sunday evening as fires neared the transmission lines, is back online.
However, Fort Resolution, Fort Smith and Hay River remain on diesel-generated power until transmission lines can be re-energized, but when that can happen is unclear. The corporation needs the go-ahead from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to check the power lines before they can be re-energized.
13 fires caused by people
While most of the 123 fires logged by officials this year were caused by lightning, Mawdsley says 13 were caused by people.
A fire ban is in effect in all N.W.T. Parks in the North Slave, South Slave and Dehcho regions, and Lady Evelyn Falls park and campground near Kakisa is closed.
More lightning is expected this weekend and Mawdsley expects the fire situation to get worse before it gets better.
He says more crews will be brought in if the situation warrants it.
All N.W.T. residents are asked to immediately report any fires they may see.