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Keno City residents take fire protection into their own hands, say gov't isn't providing enough help

When Keno City was put under an evacuation alert last week because of wildfires, local residents hurried to finish assembling their fire protection system. The community, which has been without protection since its fire truck was removed by the Yukon government in 2019, is frustrated with how little the government is doing to protect them from fire.

Yukon gov't disagrees and says it is 'doing an awful lot to make sure Keno is protected [from] fire'

A house fire in Keno City, Yukon, on Feb. 10, 2021. It was the second fire in two months in the small community of about 24. In both instances, they had to call the nearest fire service in Mayo, about an hour away. (Amber Smith)

When a nearby wildfire put Keno City under threat in early July, residents rushed to assemble the final pieces of their own fire protection service.

They had slowly started piecing it together this past spring. One local donated his old water truck. Others reached out to nearby mining companies for supplies. 

The community's equipment, which consists of six donated water totes, several water pumps and a water truck, is now placed in strategic locations around town.

Amber Smith, spokesperson for the Keno City Resident Council, said the community, which has been without protection since its fire truck was removed by the Yukon government in 2019, is frustrated with how slowly the Yukon government is taking action to help the community.

A woman with light brown hair wears bright pink glasses.
Amber Smith is with the Keno City Resident Council. She says the government isn’t doing enough to help residents access fire protection resources, leaving the community 'vulnerable.' (Amber Smith)

"I'm really angry," said Smith. "I love my town and I just want us to be safe. If I can only get one thing done, it's to get Keno to have fire protection."

But the territorial government said it is doing "an awful lot" to help the community.

Keno was put under evacuation alert on July 5, as the Hansen Lakes wildfire approached the town. The evacuation alert has since been lifted, but Smith said the community felt the need to take firefighting into its own hands. She said it's not getting the support it needs from the Yukon government.

"The reality is that we are vulnerable and so are other unincorporated communities, and we are left fending for ourselves," said Smith.

Smith said given the town's recent history with fires, residents decided "enough is enough."

Last December, following the destruction of the iconic Keno City Hotel by fire in December 2020 and a house in the community two months later, the territorial government released a review of its legislation related to fire services. 

The report listed 104 recommendations, including implementing a "fire protection in a box" program — giving small and remote communities some fire suppression gear like hoses, portable pumps, shovels and other equipment so they would have a basic capability to limit the spread of a structural fire.

The Keno City Hotel in Keno City, Yukon, was destroyed by fire on Dec. 11, 2020. A few days later, residents called for an independent public inquiry. (Kevin O'Hara/Facebook)

Smith says the government has yet to implement the "fire protection in a box" program, and the community is growing frustrated.

"For us, it's incredibly galling to now have a fire crisis situation that has affected many small communities in Yukon, particularly in central Yukon, and we've been screaming about fire protection with YG since 2019," she said.

"The crisis is upon us and there are these resources in the community, and we are being shut out from them."

Gov't says it's doing 'an awful lot' to protect Keno

Smith said the community still doesn't have access to a source of water to put out fires.

Smith has requested that the town have access to one of the wells that was destroyed in 2015 when attempted cleaning of the well caused it to collapse. 

While that water is not potable, she contends it can be "incredibly beneficial to residents or first responders" in a fire situation.

Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn would not say whether the "fire protection in a box" program would be implemented in the future or not.

He did however note that Yukon Wildfire Management has identified a stream that runs through the town as a viable water source to fight fires.

A cubic container filled with water sits in front of a wooden one-storey building.
Keno residents have filled and placed five water totes in strategic locations around the community to be used in the event of a fire. (Amber Smith)

Mostyn countered that "to say that we're ignoring Keno is not quite fair."

"We're doing an awful lot to make sure Keno is protected [from] fire."

He said one of the report's other recommendations – to create a fire safety champion program – has already been implemented.

The program was piloted in March 2022 and involved training two fire safety champions in the community who can talk to other residents about making their homes safer by discussing smoke detectors, clean chimneys and how to keep properties free from clutter and combustible materials.

Mostyn also said the government deployed fire-fighters in the Keno area this summer, provided $60,000 in funding for fire smarting over the past three years and hired a structural protection specialist to put in place a plan to protect any Keno structures threatened by fires.

A bright yellow water truck is parked on a dirt road.
An old water truck owned by Keno City resident Mike Mancini. The truck has been filled with water so locals can respond to a fire emergency quickly if needed. (Amber Smith)

Mostyn said the Yukon Fire Marshal's Office (FMO) has met with Keno City residents 25 times since the 2021 report was released.

Smith disagrees with Mostyn's assessment and said residents have only had two Zoom meetings and one on-site visit with the FMO. 

Smith also feels that Mostyn's comments about protecting the community from wildfires is missing the point. She said Keno City wants year-round fire protection services, noting that once fire season is over, unincorporated communities are once again left without any support.

"I cannot tell you how many hours of my life I have devoted to this issue," said Smith.

"Now we see a crisis breaking out, and the government has refused to look at [the issue]. It's not just us, there's other communities that are vulnerable too."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maya Lach-Aidelbaum is a reporter with CBC Yukon. She has previously worked with CBC News in Toronto and Montreal. You can reach her at maya.lach.aidelbaum@cbc.ca

With files from CBC News

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