'No community is immune:' Yellowknife starts wildfire season preparations

As a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., continues to burn out of control, Natural Resources Canada says the Yellowknife area is at 'extreme' risk for wildfires, and the City of Yellowknife is preparing for the upcoming fire season.

Yellowknife area currently at 'extreme' risk for wildfires, according to Natural Resources Canada

The City of Yellowknife says it's preparing this year for another "moderate to high forest fire risk season." (Sara Minogue/CBC)

As a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., continues to burn out of control, the City of Yellowknife is preparing for the upcoming forest fire season.

On Wednesday, in its daily forecast, Natural Resources Canada said the Yellowknife area is at 'extreme' risk for wildfires — and it's only the beginning of May.

On Wednesday, Natural Resources Canada is putting the city’s fire danger forecast at extreme. (Natural Resources Canada)

Yellowknife's director of public safety, Dennis Marchiori, says after the last two years of severe forest fires, the city is preparing for a third.

"We are in a three-to-five year cycle, so we are at year three of that cycle, so we're probably looking at another moderate to high forest fire risk season," he said.

Marchiori says Yellowknife benefits from being flanked by Great Slave Lake on one side, the Giant Mine site to the north, which doesn't have many trees, and more lakes to the west.

"That being said, and what you can see in Fort McMurray right now, is that no community is immune to a forest fire," he added.

"If the fire is burning well enough and it has winds to fuel it, the forest fire can come from any direction."

The city is trying to quell that fuel by fire-smarting areas of the city — removing vegetation from the ground as well as limbs and branches from trees.

Marchiori says it's a "simple but time-consuming" multi-year process that helps slow down a forest fire.

What's the plan?

Highway 3 frequently closed between Behchoko and Fort Providence in the summer of 2014 due to wildfires. (Glen Abernethy/Twitter)

Yellowknife has only one road leading south, which over the last two summers has frequently closed due to fires. The only other road out of town is the Ingraham Trail — a highway that has also seen its fair share of fires.

Marchiori says the city's primary concern is a fire in the southern part of the city. A plan for that is in place for residents.  

"What we would do is move those people out and we would move them into a reception centre," he said. That could be the city's multiplex or field house, or Sir John Franklin or École St. Patrick high schools.

"[We would] house them there for a brief period of time while we deal with a possible fire if it was coming from the southern end.

"The reason we'd do that is that trying to move 20,000 people down a highway that we may not have access to — as we know in other years we've had forest fires that have blocked off the highway and we can't get traffic through."

Marchiori says the city would run pumps from lakes or hydrants to work on the fire. He says they know the areas of concern, which are the same areas they're fire-smarting.

'If the fire is burning well enough and it has winds to fuel it, the forest fire can come from any direction,' says Dennis Marchiori, the city's director of public safety. (CBC)

He's reminding people to be prepared for 72 hours in case of an emergency, and to have bottled water and food on hand.

Marchiori and city officials will meet with communications personnel from the territorial government on Thursday. As well, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has invited media to its first wildfire briefing of the year on Thursday.

The city's fire chief is also looking to meet with the N.W.T.'s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to discuss what he thinks this upcoming forest fire season will look like.

"We've learned from the last two fairly severe forest fire seasons that information is the key and residents want to know what's going on and what things are being done," said Marchiori. 

With files from Kate Kyle


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