'We're quite concerned they haven't learned anything': Report on Namushka fire urges change

With another dry forest fire season predicted for the Northwest Territories, owners of a lodge that burned to the ground last July are still waiting for answers about why they did not receive any help, or even a warning.

Recommendations from report include repeats from the 2014 forest fire report, which have yet to be implemented

Bryan Chorostkowski stands on the site where Namushka Lodge burned down last summer. The Chorostkowskis are rebuilding the lodge, but are concerned that little has changed, despite the territorial government's insistence that they are following recommendations in a report made following the fire. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

With another dry forest fire season predicted for the Northwest Territories, owners of a lodge that burned to the ground last July are still waiting for answers about why they did not receive any help, or even a warning.

Twenty-one frightened guests and staff evacuated the lodge just before it went up in flames at about 9 p.m. on July 15. Fanned by winds gusting over 45 kilometres per hour, the fire reached the lodge after racing 10 kilometres — across a road, a river, and a firebreak — in less than 10 hours.

The fly-in fishing lodge is operated by the Chorostkowski family of Yellowknife. It was located on the shores of Harding Lake, 53 kilometres east of the city. The Chorostkowskis are rebuilding it.

"There was lots of issues, I think, on their [the territorial government's Department of Environment and Natural Resources'] side of things," said Bryan Chorostkowski. "Do I think they handled it well? No. Not at all. There were seven recommendations made at the end of our report, and they all point to stuff ENR has to change."

"We've asked to see what they've done, and we've got one word answers back," Chorostkowski said. "We've asked for an explanation for how these things have been implemented and they haven't even got back to us."

Building materials sit on the site of the past and future Namushka Lodge, where burned out forest can be seen on all sides - the remnants of last year's fire. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Recommendations from 2014 fire still not implemented

CBC obtained a copy of the report, which the government had said would not be made public. The N.W.T. government hired fire investigators from Alberta to look into how it handled the Reid Lake fire.

One of the most alarming revelations in the report was that the person in charge of operations on the ground was not aware of the lodge. The department compiles a list of cabins and other structures at risk, but the person in charge of operations, who was not from the region, had not been briefed on the lodge.

The report also said communications was an issue. At the fire base in Yellowknife, the duty officer in charge of overseeing the operation was also fielding calls from the public.

With numerous cabins, a territorial park and another camp in the area, the line was busy at the time the fire was threatening the lodge. The report recommended an assistant be present in such situations to screen calls to allow the duty officer to focus on operations.

That same recommendation was made in a report on a fire that burned a homestead on the east arm of Great Slave Lake three years ago.

The Minister of Environment and Natural Resources says all of the recommendations in the report on the Namushka fire will be implemented, but did not appear familiar with the recommendations.

"If there was a recommendation that a response be given to the owners of the lodge, then there will be," said Robert C. McLeod. When asked if the department will be giving the Chorostkowskis a written account of what it's doing to implement the findings of the report, McLeod could not say when that response would be provided.

Robert C. McLeod, the territory's Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, in February of 2017. McLeod said that the territorial government would implement all the recommendations made in the report. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
The report also recommended that a workshop be held for duty officers before the start of the 2017 fire season to review lessons learned over the last three years. McLeod said that's going to happen but couldn't say when.

"We have a responsibility to fight forest fires in the Northwest Territories, and folks out there have a responsibility to make sure their values are protected," said McLeod. "The fact that we had so many cabins out there, and I think only a few of them might have been damaged, I think, speaks volumes for the work of the people at ENR."

Chorostkowski says he has heard from ENR staff that a computer model used to predict the spread of wildfires was not operating the day the lodge burned because of a software problem. He says in an earlier version of the report that he reviewed, ENR stated it had advised the lodge to evacuate.

Chorostkowski says that advice was never given, and it was removed from the final version of the report.

"It's been reported that it's going to be another bad fire season and we're quite concerned they haven't learned anything and nothing has changed," he said.

The territorial government spent almost $30 million fighting forest fires last summer.


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