For the last two months, Chandra Ursich’s nine-month-old baby has been coughing so much he can’t sleep.
Outside their Porter Creek home, flames dance in the valley every night.
During the day, a mushroom cloud of smoke sits above the treeline.
It’s been like this since slashing and grubbing began for the Whistle Bend development clearing, said Ursich.
Her baby, Spencer, has been most affected.
He developed a cough and, when the fires and smoke are at their worst, he wakes up every hour throughout the night, she said.
Spencer’s incessant coughing and soot-covered mucus motivated Ursich to enter the labyrinthine public complaints process.
She started out at the Yukon government’s switchboard which transferred her to Community Services program manager Brian Ritchie.
“He said there was absolutely nothing they could do about it,” Ursich said. “So I told him I would take my complaint to Health Canada.”
Health Canada transferred her to Yukon’s Environmental Health Services, which told her she needs doctors’ notes to confirm the link between Spencer’s cough and the Whistle Bend burning.
Her family doctor sent Spencer to a pediatrician who ordered tests and X-rays.
Three weeks later, the tests confirmed Spencer’s cough is caused by the smoke.
Last Thursday, Environmental Health Services finally told Ursich that it took action.
It was recommended that fires should not be lit if there was a north wind.
Now, this will be enforced, Environmental Health Services told Ursich.
But that was already part of the burning permit, said Whitehorse fire Chief Clive Sparks.
The current permit, which began October 1, allows open burning 24 hours a day until the end of March, he said.
With the exception of the north-wind restriction, it’s the same permit that has been given to other developments, said Sparks.
Fires have to be kept small, and only clean wood can be burned.
“They can’t burn everything at once, and they can’t burn anything they want,” he said.
This is how the size of the fire is regulated, said Sparks.
“Some nights the fire was as big as a bus,” said Ursich, who claims from their viewpoint – right above the fires – the flames seem to only be getting bigger and smokier.
The fire department does not regularly visit the site to enforce the restrictions, said Sparks.
It only goes to the site if there’s a complaint, he said, confirming that, so far, there has been no violations on this permit and the fire department has not been alerted of any complaints.
The city hadn’t received any complaints, either, said Whistle Bend planner Kinden Kosick.
A curtain burner – a big bin that causes less smoke by burning at a higher temperature and has a fan to direct smoke – has been used, he said.
“And everything that can be, has been salvaged,” said Kosick.
The territorial government – which received Ursich’s complaints – only issues the contract, said Community Services spokesperson Catherine Morgan.
Because the development is happening on traditional territory, Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s contracting company, 42135 Yukon Inc., was awarded the contract, she said.
“We require the contractor to retain a burning permit and follow that,” said Morgan.
It is the fire department’s job to enforce the permit.
The burning is expected to end before December 31, added Morgan.
While there might have to be a little bit more burning next spring, they are already close to finishing, said Kosick.
Spencer is still coughing but is back to nearly four hours of sleep a night, said Ursich.
The family has since purchased air purifiers for their home and are waiting to hear back from doctors on whether Spencer will have to take medication for asthma, she said.
If Spencer’s coughing fits continue or worsen, Ursich is prepared to continue seeking action, and they have saved all their receipts, she said.
Both Environmental Health Services and 42135 Yukon Inc. could not be reached for comment.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at firstname.lastname@example.org