On the front line of an inferno

The helicopter packed with firefighters rose above the treeline and gave Dan Adamson a bird's eye view of the wildfires raging all around him. Mushroom clouds sprang up in every direction.

The helicopter packed with firefighters rose above the treeline and gave Dan Adamson a bird’s eye view of the wildfires raging all around him.

Mushroom clouds sprang up in every direction.

The way Adamson described what he saw, it sounded like he was in a war zone.

“It looked like atomic bombs,” the 35-year-old said.

The 16-year veteran firefighter and crew leader served two separate tours in the Northwest Territories this summer, going to Fort Smith and Kakisa.

Yukon firefighters were available to lend a helping hand during their slowest wildfire season on record.

It was so slow, in fact, that Adamson said he didn’t have to fight a single fire in the Yukon this summer.

“The only fire I put out was the burn pile in my front yard,” he said.

A total of 59 Wildland Fire Management personnel were deployed to the neighbouring territory on five occasions, according to spokesman George Maratos.

For 19 days each time, Adamson and his crews fought to contain some of the most ferocious blazes the N.W.T. has seen.

He said it reminded him of 2004, the summer 261 fires burned an area of Yukon forest the size of Northern Ireland, or approximately 1.71 million hectares.

That summer it cost the Yukon government $33 million to fight forest fires.

It’s too early to determine how much was spent this fire season, but Maratos said it would be below Wildland Fire Management’s $15.1 million budget.

In comparison, 385 fires raged in the N.W.T. this summer, burning an estimated 3.38 million hectares, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

Volunteers were picked and sent either as individuals or in groups of 20 that are then split up into crews and leaders.

Adamson’s crews worked to put out hot spots using suppression equipment such as shovels and chainsaws. They would also run thousands of feet of hose to fight fires in different strategic locations.

An unseasonably dry summer meant temperatures soared in the N.W.T., especially in proximity to wildfires, and were literally too hot to handle.

It was, on average, 35 Celsius during the day and around 30 Celsius at night.

Closer to the fires, Adamson’s equipment picked up temperatures in the 50s.

“It was hot – there was nowhere to be cool and inside your tent, you were roasting,” he said.

“On site I got the worst chafing of my life. Sometimes we had to work for 40 minutes then break for 20. Some guys had symptoms of heat exhaustion.”

Firefighters wore equipment that weighed about 30 kilograms.

Before being shipped out of Whitehorse, they received extensive training for six weeks. “By the time they get there, there isn’t much they haven’t done already,” he said.

On a typical day, they would get up just before 6 a.m. and go have breakfast at a nearby camp.

When Adamson first arrived on July 11, there were only about 40 people there. The population of the camp had swelled to around 180 by the second tour.

Then they would attend a morning briefing and receive their marching orders for the day.

Crews would board helicopters and scout the wildfires from the air, then determine the best spots to work from.

On the way back home there was a stopover in Yellowknife.

Adamson said the smell of smoke was overpowering and lingered everywhere.

“You just got used to it,” he said.

“I walked through the large mall in the middle of town and everything smelled of smoke. The bathrooms, jewelry shops, electronics store. Nothing was untouched by smoke.”

He said the hardest part of the summer had nothing to do with fires, heat or smoke.

“You can’t plan on doing anything during those active times, I put everything on hold,” he said.

“Even doggy training classes are out of the question. Everyone’s gear is already packed so they’re ready to go in 15 minutes if need be. You have to make sure your stuff is handled and you’re with a person who understands that it’s part of the job.

“Being away from the people you love – that’s the hardest part.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference in Whitehorse on May 26. The Yukon government announced two new cases of COVID-19 in the territory with a press release on Oct. 19. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Two new cases of COVID-19 announced in Yukon

Contact tracing is complete and YG says there is no increased risk to the public

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on April 8. Yukon Energy faced a potential “critical” fuel shortage in January due to an avalanche blocking a shipping route from Skagway to the Yukon, according to an email obtained by the Yukon Party and questioned in the legislature on Oct. 14. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Energy faced ‘critical’ fuel shortage last January due to avalanche

An email obtained by the Yukon Party showed energy officials were concerned

Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys), the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. “Our government is proud to be supporting Yukon’s grassroots organizations and First Nation governments in this critical work,” said McLean of the $175,000 from the Yukon government awarded to four community-based projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government gives $175k to projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women

Four projects were supported via the Prevention of Violence against Aboriginal Women Fund

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

When I was a kid, CP Air had a monopoly on flights… Continue reading

EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Alkan Air hangar in Whitehorse. Alkan Air has filed its response to a lawsuit over a 2019 plane crash that killed a Vancouver geologist on board, denying that there was any negligence on its part or the pilot’s. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Alkan Air responds to lawsuit over 2019 crash denying negligence, liability

Airline filed statement of defence Oct. 7 to lawsuit by spouse of geologist killed in crash

Whitehorse city council members voted Oct. 13 to decline an increase to their base salaries that was set to be made on Jan. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council declines increased wages for 2021

Members will not have wages adjusted for CPI

A vehicle is seen along Mount Sima Road in Whitehorse on May 12. At its Oct. 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the third reading for two separate bylaws that will allow the land sale and transfer agreements of city-owned land — a 127-square-metre piece next to 75 Ortona Ave. and 1.02 hectares of property behind three lots on Mount Sima Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse properties could soon expand

Land sale agreements approved by council

Most Read