N.W.T. fires: Cabin owners take matters into own hands

The worst fire season in three decades is forcing cabin owners in the Northwest Territories to take matters into their own hands. "There were literally tornadoes of fires in the treetops, and when they were crowning they'd literally explode in front of us," says Spencer Decorby.

Government warns cabin owners they're on their own if fires strike

Spencer Decorby spent last weekend battling flames at his father's cabin about 80 kilometres east of Yellowknife.

He says it was the most humbling experience in his life.

"Standing against a wall of flames that's a couple of storeys high and holding a firehose, you feel like you're peeing on a bonfire," he said.

Dry, hot conditions are contributing to the worst forest fire season in 30 years. Last night, new fires near the capital forced officials to close the only route south out of the city overnight. Part of the highway reopened early Tuesday morning, but crews are still working on the southern portion, where fire leaped a 10-kilometre path over the road.

“It actually melted part of the northbound lane," says Michael Conway, with the Department of Transportation.

Crews from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were on hand to get the fires under control and protect infrastructure.

That's the kind of workload that's forced the department to warn cabin owners they could be left on their own if forest fires get close to remote hideaways in the woods. 

Family and friends joined Decorby in four major firefights.

"We managed to hold the line until about four in the morning when we realized an ember had gone and jumped inside of our lines and landed way up in the hill behind us, at which point we had to fall back and defend the perimeter around the camp as well, which we had made as a secondary line of defence, Decorby said of one particularly difficult confrontation with a raging wildfire.

"There were literally tornadoes of fires in the treetops, and when they were crowning, they'd literally explode in front of us."

Decorby says firefighters gave them pumps and hoses to battle the flames, and that he understands that fire authorities have no manpower available to help cabin owners.

Northwest Territories Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger is recommending that people use the FireSmart fire-protection system to guard their property against wildfires and is offering residents a manual to help them do that

Decorby is now monitoring fires near his own cabin near Fort Reliance. He’s registered his location with the department and plans to keep an eye on several fires.

"When things get too intense, you have to fall back," he says. "Things from slipping on wet rocks to getting surrounded by fire — these are all possibilities that could have very tragic consequences if you're not careful."

Cut down the trees, move firewood

Anyone with homes or cabins in remote areas has been watching the fires closely ever since a fire destroyed the Olesen homestead on a remote corner of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake earlier this month. 

Lawrence Mercredi has lived on Prelude Lake east of Yellowknife for 26 years.

He's cut down the trees near his house and moved all his firewood away from the buildings.

"If it gets close, I'm going to start soaking everything. I've got enough water, and I've got enough hose to soak the areas that I need to soak."

Not everyone is feeling quite so prepared.

Maureen Tonge bought a cabin on Reid Lake last year. A fire in the area over a week ago forced the closure of Reid Lake Territorial Park.

"We certainly were aware that it could happen, [but] I like to live with rose-coloured glasses, and I never really thought it would happen," Tonge said.

She said she has kayaks and other belongings out at the cabin that she hasn't had a chance to bring home with her. Now, she's worried she may not see them again.


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