The patter of heavy rain on the roof as officials from a variety of governments and agencies offered an update on the Yukon wildfire situation was greeted as a good sign. Despite this, the facts and figures still indicate that one of the most challenging fire seasons in recent memory is still in full swing.
With Old Crow and Mayo evacuated, more than 500 Yukoners have been ordered to leave their homes. Many of them are receiving support in Whitehorse. There are 138 fires burning approximately 140,861 hectares in the territory. Smoke is blanketing communities severely enough that air quality warnings have been issued across much of its central and northern regions.
The Aug. 10 briefing included information from representatives of the territorial government, Wildland Fire Management and Yukon communities and First Nations that are either embattled by fire or rendering assistance to those who are.
“We know that the need to leave your home due to the risks associated with wildfire can be traumatic to all evacuees from Mayo and now Old Crow. On behalf of the Government of Yukon, I really want to let you know that you are not alone. Yukoners are here to support and assist in any way we can,” Yukon Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said at the briefing.
“We will continue to provide supports to evacuees until these communities are no longer at risk and residents can safely return home.”
The evacuation order for Mayo went into effect on Aug. 6 due to the growing Talbot Creek Fire. The Moose Creek Headwater Fire is also burning nearby.
The decision to evacuate Old Crow, which is not road-accessible and relies primarily on aircraft for access, was made the afternoon of Aug. 9.
Diana Dryburgh, an information officer with the Yukon government’s emergency coordination centre, said that the order to evacuate was issued by the Vuntut Gwitchin Government (VGG) but the Yukon government is supporting the order and providing assistance. On Aug. 9, both Dryburgh and information circulated by VGG stated that the community was not directly threatened by the fire but with high winds on the way, smoke conditions were expected to worsen possibly causing ash and embers to fall on Old Crow.
Evacuation flights from Old Crow reached Whitehorse throughout the afternoon of Aug. 9 and Aug. 10. Some evacuees transferred through Inuvik in the Northwest Territories which is experiencing its own smoky conditions. Despite this, emergency services representatives said the evacuation had been going smoothly.
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Pauline Frost, still in Old Crow herself, said 127 people had registered to evacuate and approximately 56 remain in the community.
The chief, who addressed the Aug. 10 meeting by video as air-purifying fans hummed in the background, said good emergency planning was done ahead of the evacuation. This allowed for the arrival of the first evacuation flight within four hours of the evacuation order. Citizens could only pack light bags in order to maximize the number of people who could fit on the evacuation flights
Among those who stayed behind are nine people with previous training from Wildland Fire Management. Nine of those who stayed have been deputized as community safety officers and are patrolling to take care of evacuees’ properties. Frost said others have volunteered to feed and take care of animals that have been left behind.
The smoke in Old Crow is severe. Frost said the air quality index reached 570 at one point. Fans and air filters have been distributed at all homes in Old Crow that are still occupied.
“There’s not one fire advancing towards the community, but instead there’s a number of fires in the region and an incoming weather event that could produce a lot more smoke and the potential for ember transfer from fires towards Old Crow,” fire information officer Haley Ritchie said at the Aug. 10 briefing.
Ritchie said the focus is structure protection and that the size of the fires and their distance from the village don’t currently make them suitable for direct attack by fire crews.
There are a total of 21 fires burning in the Old Crow region.
Ritchie told the briefing that reduced fire behaviour in the Mayo area means crews can work directly on the north and west flanks of the Talbot Creek Fire, not just on structure protection. A crew from Nova Scotia is working alongside Yukoners on the fire and four helicopters are in use.
“Leaving one’s home is not knowing whether we’ll be able to go back or not. And what we’ll see when we get back is nothing anyone should have to go through. But as we have seen this, this has been the reality for hundreds of our people,” said First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Chief Dawna Hope.
Hope thanked the Kwanlin Dün First Nation for the warmth and support evacuees have been shown, the territorial government for coordinating firefighting efforts around Mayo and all those on the front line.
“These firefighters are land defenders, their bravery and determination is seen and it will not be forgotten by our community,” Hope said.
Mayo Mayor Trevor Ellis, speaking to the Aug. 10 meeting by video conference and dressed in a Mayo Volunteer Fire Department t-shirt and ball cap, noted the numerous offers of support the village had received and all the hard work the local fire department had done.
Ellis also noted that the mood in Mayo is much less tense following a positive shift in the weather. While some of those left in the community wrongly chose to stay in his opinion, Ellis stated that those still in the area have pitched in to help when needed.
At the briefing, Emergency Social Services (ESS) representative Dale Cheeseman said there were 220 registered evacuees from Mayo. He said they are staying in Whitehorse, Carmacks, Dawson and Pelly Crossing.
Officials at the briefing urged all evacuees to register with ESS by phone at 867-332-4597 or in person at the Canada Game Centre.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com