Yellowknifers got a taste of what it’s like to live next door to a wildfire yesterday when smoke wafted over the city from a fire just 20 kilometres outside of town, and barricades briefly went up on the main highway route to the rest of the country.
Smoky skies, unusually high humidity and intermittent winds combined to create a spooky atmosphere, made spookier with the occasional falling ash.
"The ash really kind of freaks me out,” says local celebrity, Mikey McBryan of Ice Pilots NWT. “It reminds me of those early 90s disaster movies.”
City officials say there’s no cause for alarm.
"At this point in time I can assure you that the public is in no danger other than some of the smoke conditions we've seen over the last two, three weeks,” Dennis Marchiori, the city’s director of public safety, said Tuesday.
Marchiori says the city has an emergency plan in place, though it’s not specific to a forest fire. It focuses instead on who would be involved if decisions needed to be made. “It gets all the agencies and city managers in one room to make unified decisions,” he says.
A Community Wildfire Protection Plan, dated March of 2012, assessed the risk of fires in various parts of the city and made recommendations for clearing brush and trees to reduce the risk.
It also recommends the city work with officials at Environment and Natural Resources and Municipal and Community Affairs to “develop a Community Wildfire Pre-Plan for the community to provide greater operational detail to emergency responders during a wildland/urban interface incident.”
It’s not clear whether that happened.
The report points out that it's not unusual for fires to occur within city limits. It found that between 2002 and 2011, there were 250 wildfires within a 10-kilometre radius of the city, most of them human caused.
“We know that the fire indices are extremely, extremely high so we do ask Yellowknifers to be extremely careful with cigarettes or any other combustibles," Marchiori says.
‘We'll... put out information’
Nonetheless, Marchiori is not worried.
“A forest fire affecting the City of Yellowknife, while I will not say it is highly unlikely, it’s difficult because of the amount of lakes surrounding us and marshes,” he says. “If we had to do anything, we would call in those agencies, activate our emergency plan and come up with a plan.”
He says the worst case scenario would involve building a huge fire break, adding that the city has access to plenty of heavy equipment to take on the job, thanks to the number of construction companies.
“The difficulty with any sort of emergency preparedness is that we don’t put out information all the time. It’s not a necessity to make sure we try and cover every point.”
Marchiori’s advice to those worried about fires in the city is to stay tuned. He says the city will put out information as soon as they get it.
“We’ll also put out information if we think that there is any sort of danger to residents in the city. From what we understand from government officials, there is no risk at this time other than the fact that it’s dry and we haven’t had a lot of precipitation.”
Kevin Brezinski is the director of public safety with MACA.
He says his department focuses on early contact with communities to alert them of dangerous situations, to make sure they understand who’s responsible for what and what provisions are in place, “to instill a sense of comfort and that there is a process in place.”
But he also cites the 72- hour rule, and says that it’s up to individuals to keep on hand everything they would need to get by for three days.