N.W.T. wildfire destroys a homestead 27 years in the making

Dave and Kristen Olesen’s hand-built homestead on a remote part of Great Slave Lake is the latest casualty in the worst forest fire season the Northwest Territories has seen in 20 years.

'It wasn't a perfect house, but I loved it'

Dave Olesen, 56, in front of his float plane on a Yellowknife dock. On July 4, a wildfire destroyed the home he and his wife had built by hand on a remote part of Great Slave Lake. 'It wasn't a perfect house but I loved it.' (CBC)

A homestead on a remote part of Great Slave Lake is the latest casualty in the worst forest fire season the Northwest Territories has seen in 20 years.

Dave Olesen and his wife, Kristen, have lived on the shore of McLeod Bay near the Hoarfrost River for 27 years. They built the home themselves and raised their two daughters in it.

A fire has been burning in the area for weeks.

"It was northeast of us, and our prevailing winds are from the northeast. So when you have a fire upwind of you, it gets your attention. And it had our attention."

The three-storey house was 6 metres by 6 metres, built by logs Kristen and Dave Olesen cut and peeled themselves.

Olesen, a pilot, flew over the fire Thursday morning. It was 12 kilometres away and not advancing, so he left to do a charter flight.

The next day the winds blew up and the fire raced toward the home, with only Kristen there.

Dave says Kristen told him she made several calls for help, but fire officials said the home was not in danger.

Dave flew back that evening.

"I taxied in through the smoke, not knowing what I would find," he says. "I got to the shore and Kristen came out to the edge of the rock and as I tied the plane up, I asked her, 'Do we have a house?’ and she said, 'No we don't have a house.’"

The Olesen homestead included a guest cabin, workshop and kennels for their team of sled dogs.

'Something big is gonna happen’

Olesen says he was worried the fire was getting too close to his house and had been asked several times for firefighters to bring pumps and sprinklers as a precaution.   

A water bomber and a helicopter were sent to the scene, but both were too late to save the home and guest cabin.

Nobody from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was available to comment.

But Olesen, who had been working with firefighters near his home, says he doesn’t blame the fire department.

"I should have been more assertive," Olesen says. "'I need a pump. I need a sprinkler. Get this stuff to me and I’ll relax.’"

The Olesen's sled dogs before the fire that destroyed the homestead on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.

Olesen also says he’s not sure the department knew exactly where his house was, or realized the extent of the homestead.

"It’s not just a little cabin in the woods," he says. "We’ve got a workshop, we had a guest cabin, which is gone. When they realized, wow, there’s more here and it’s not burning, then they went ashore and got sprinklers laid out and by the time I got in about 11, there were sprinklers going."

Olesen says things would have gone differently if he’d been at home when the fire struck. As it was, everything happened suddenly.

"She [Kristen] walked down to the guest cabin and saw a rabbit that bolted out of the woods. That's like Bambi. Something big is gonna happen."

130 fires burning in N.W.T. 

At least 130 fires are burning across the Northwest Territories right now, with more than half of them in the regions north and south of Great Slave Lake.

The fires have closed highways and two territorial parks, prompted fire bans, and forced one community  Kakisa, pop. 50 —​ to be evacuated for a week.

"The lesson we're taking from this is when it's a fire season like this and everything in the whole country is about to ignite, you're on your own," Olesen says. "You can't wait for the cavalry to come in."

Olesen says he and his wife are already talking about rebuilding, but at 56, he’s not sure what they’ll do.

He says the scar from the fire on the landscape is something that won’t heal in his lifetime.

"It wasn't a perfect house, but I loved it. It had lots of flaws, because I’m not a professional carpenter or anything else. But it just is hard to imagine going out and peeling logs right now."