Yukon wildfire officials saw increased fire activity over the past weekend and impacts on communities in the territory’s north and central regions continue.
In response to the Talbot Creek Fire, the Village of Mayo was evacuated. The fire remains south of the Stewart River while Mayo is to its north. The evacuation was called efficient and orderly by Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee during an Aug. 7 briefing on the fire situation.
On Aug. 8, the territorial government declared a state of emergency for the Mayo area following consultation with Mayo’s mayor and the chief of the First Nation of Na-cho Nyäk Dun. It covers a 15 kilometre radius from the centre of the village.
The Talbot Creek Fire is currently burning an area of 4,477 hectares, down from a much larger estimate after the fire was measured by GPS rather than by satellite. It is about four kilometres south of Mayo and remains out of control. At the Aug. 7 meeting, fire information officer Haley Ritchie said the fire moved mostly northwest on Aug. 6 but a westward shift in the evening caused by favourable winds was good news and offered extra time to respond to the fire’s growth on Aug. 7. Low visibility due to smoke hampered firefighting efforts on Aug. 8 but high overnight humidity and some rainfall helped the situation.
Ritchie said a “modified response” is being employed on the fire, meaning Wildland Fire’s goal is not to extinguish the fire but to stop it from impacting Mayo. She said all available resources are in use to safeguard properties and public safety. A dozer guard is being built on the edge of Mayo, six airtankers and four bucket helicopters dropped retardant to slow the growth of the fire earlier in the week and more than 35 Wildland Fire personnel are working in the area alongside structural firefighters. Eleven firefighters from Saskatchewan left Whitehorse for Mayo to assist them on the morning of Aug. 8.
Greg Blackjack from the territory’s emergency measures organization noted that Keno City and Hecla mine have been placed on evacuation alert due to the threat fires pose to the Silver Trail. Ritchie said road access is also the quickest way to get crews and equipment to work protecting Mayo but that the Silver Trail could still be used by first responders even if it is closed to the public.
Dale Cheeseman, a representative of the territory’s emergency social services branch, said 124 Mayo residents had registered as evacuees as of Aug. 7. All those who left the community are being asked to register in order to access services and to let responders know they are safe. They can register in person at the reception centre that has been set up at the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse or by calling 867-332-4597. Evacuees are being provided with supports including food, clothing and accommodations. Space has been made available at hotels and at the Normandy assisted living facility with help from the Yukon’s emergency measures organization and local businesses. Whitehorse residents have also provided evacuees with places to stay and other assistance. If alternate accommodation can’t be found, group lodging staffed by a Canadian Red Cross team has been set up at the Canada Games Centre.
Wildland Fire is also continuing its response to the East McQuesten Fire, which prompted a second evacuation of most workers from Victoria Gold’s Eagle Gold mine late last week. Ritchie said no structures or power poles have been damaged by fire but added that fire could burn around the perimeter of the mine site and threaten its access road.
The North Klondike Highway was closed intermittently on Aug. 6 due to the Gravel Lake Fire. Fires have also impacted the Dempster Highway in recent days. Motorists are being advised to use the Yukon 511 website to check on highway conditions before setting off. Blackjack said it’s important that information about the highways reaches tourists as well as locals.
While it is still not being directly threatened by fires, Old Crow remains very smoky with a special air quality statement from Environment Canada in place since last week. A heat warning is also in effect as daytime highs reach the high 20s. Ritchie said the fires in the area are being monitored by satellite with possible impacts on Old Crow and important heritage sites being considered.
“We know people are struggling with smoke exposure, and we’re keeping a close eye on those fires. We’re still trying to get an aerial flight to do a survey of those fires as well, but smoke does make that difficult, with it challenging visibility,” the fire information officer said.
Blackjack noted that an emergency planner has been on site in the village since last Thursday.
“We’re aware of the concerns with the smoke and we worked with ESS to establish clean air centres and bring in extra equipment such as fans and filters for individual’s homes, as well as air conditioners. The priority is to keep people in the community safely and comfortably,” Blackjack said.
He added that people will be relocated to areas with cleaner air if it is necessary for their health.
As of Aug. 9, 138 wildfires were active in the Yukon and 131,451 hectares had burned since the start of the season.
“So while this number of fires has put a strain on our resources, we’re collaborating with partners, and we’re importing additional resources from outside the territory. Starting Monday, today, eight initial attack crews from Newfoundland and Saskatchewan will be arriving in the territory to support efforts on the Talbot Creek fire up in Mayo,” Ritchie said during the Aug. 7 briefing.
The arrival of a crew of 20 from Nova Scotia was also discussed during the briefing.
New fires continue to start, including three in the Teslin fire district that ignited over the weekend.Wildland Fire is responding to these with monitoring and structure protection efforts.
“This is an unusual season. Normally we’re in wrap-up mode at this time, but with the weather we’re having the wildfire season is extending far beyond what we’re used to. And that is having I’m sure a taxing effect on our incredibly conscientious civil service who’ve been fighting floods and fires all season,” said Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn at the Aug. 7 briefing.
Just how much longer the fire season will last remains an open question. Ritchie said there’s not much certainty about conditions beyond a few days in the future but that temperature and humidity play a big role so fire behaviour is expected to change with the seasons.
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org