The Yukon’s wildfire response is taking place against the backdrop of an extremely severe fire season across Canada that is straining resources everywhere. An update on the challenging situation was offered by Yukon government and Wildland Fire Management representatives on July 31.
“This wildfire season has been like nothing Canada has seen before. The entire country is swaddled in smoke and fire and it is taxing the firefighting resources of every jurisdiction in the country. The amount of forest burning in Canada is without precedent,” said Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn.
Mostyn also noted the recent death of another wildland firefighter in British Columbia, the second in that province this year and the fourth across Canada. A moment of silence was observed and flags at the Jim Smith Building and at the Yukon Wildland Fire management building have been set to half-mast.
Fire information officer Mike Fancie told the July 31 press conference that 80 new fires had been identified over the past week, largely caused by lightning. Of the 80 new fires, 42 are in the Dawson fire district and another 20 are in the Old Crow district. Wildland Fire is mustering a full response to 12 fires and a modified response to another seven.
Fancie highlighted the successes of the Dawson-area initial attack crews who put out 10 of the new fires, held or controlled four and continue fighting four more as they burn out of control. He added that more fires are expected due to additional lightning in the forecast.
At the July 31 press conference reporters heard that no communities are threatened and the Dempster Highway remains open following a fire-related closure last week.
Notable fire activity includes the East McQuesten fire spreading within four kilometres of Victoria Gold’s Eagle Mine and prompting a brief evacuation of all workers not immediately needed to keep the mine’s heap leach system running.
Victoria Gold issued a statement saying that the workers remaining at the mine volunteered to stay and that all activity except running the heap leach system had ceased. Todd Powell, director of mineral resources with the territorial government’s department of Energy, Mines and Resources noted the importance of keeping those heap leech pumps running but also that there was a fail-safe in place to prevent environmental damage in the event they lost power.
The partial evacuation was ordered July 29 and completed the following day. On Aug. 1 Victoria Gold issued another statement saying workers were cleared to return to the site. A return to normal operations at the mine is expected in the coming days.
“We would like to thank the firefighters on the ground who have made progress in recent days managing the East McQuesten fire. We will continue to monitor the situation with the safety of our employees as the highest priority,” states Victoria Gold CEO John McConnell in the Aug. 1 notice.
Fancie said Wildland Fire is satisfied the mine can safely resume operations and re-evacuate if necessary. At the July 31 press conference he noted that the fire is burning on the side of the mine opposite its access road. The fire near the mine is now more than 5,400 hectares in size. Fancie said structure protection measures are in place both at the Eagle mine and at nearby placer mine sites and controlled ignitions to remove forest fuels from key areas around the mine site have been used.
Fancie said crews have also been been working to protect the Eagle Plains lodge from a 465 hectare fire burning near the Eagle River. An Inuvik-based air tanker and Yukon highways and public works crews have been assisting with this effort.
Northwest of Eagle Plains in the Old Crow area, the focus of recent firefighting efforts has been stockpiling supplies in the remote community.
Fancie said three shipments of fuel have been cached in Old Crow and a shipment of equipment necessary for firefighting and structure protection is being planned. Mostyn said teams from Inuvik have also been flying in to help with fire response in the Old Crow area. The area is smoky but the community is not under threat.
Along with the preparations in Old Crow by Wildland Fire Management, the local government and residents of the area are getting ready for increased fire danger. The Vuntut Gwitchin Government (VGG) is keeping the community informed via its Facebook page and with a public meeting at the Darius Elias Community Hall on Aug. 1. Earlier in the week air conditioners and purifies had been set up at the hall to offer residents a break from the heat and the smoke. VGG also advised residents to avoid burning, ensure they keep in touch with friends and family about their whereabouts and to pack an evacuation bag with enough food, medicine and other essentials for three days. The community hall is the gathering place in Old Crow in the event of an evacuation.
The busy week of firefighting has been additionally challenging due to some resource shortages. Fancie said crews had limited access to helicopters that they depend on for getting into and out of the sorts of remote areas where many of the central and northern Yukon fires are burning. He added that local helicopter companies had been sympathetic to Wildland Fire’s needs and did what they could but there was still a shortage that hampered response to some fires.
Another resource the Yukon fire response found itself short of last week was out-of-territory firefighters as a crew that had been assisting on the fire line hit the end of its rotation and went home. Mostyn stressed that rest periods for Yukon firefighters and rotations home for the Outside “import crews” are a safety measure.
Mostyn said the historic 2023 fire season has strained the system of mutual aid and cooperation that usually sees firefighters from other parts of Canada sent to hot spots. Fancie called the number of foreign firefighters who have come to work in Canada this year “staggering,” and added that some have come from jurisdictions that don’t usually send aid to Canadian fire lines such as Portugal and Brazil.
“We all want the best for each other and we’re active participants in the resource sharing program as well. So they know that when we’re asking it’s because we need it,” he said.
Mostyn and Fancie stressed the importance of situational awareness and emergency preparedness for Yukoners at this time. Those in attendance at the July 31 press conference heard about the importance of monitoring the fire situation using the Yukon government’s online wildfire hub and collecting a 72-hour emergency kit with everything they might need in the event of an emergency.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com