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People flee fire near Nahanni Butte
About 100 residents decided to evacuate as embers rain down from approaching fire

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Monday, September 11, 2017

A terrifying scene has been described that took place in the small Dehcho community of Nahanni Butte on Sept. 7.

NNSL photograph

This photo of a forest fire by Nahanni Butte resident Jennifer Konisenta, was taken just hours before the community was evacuated. Embers were raining down on the hamlet as residents decided to evacuate. There was no official order to do so from GNWT officials. - photo courtesy of Jennifer Konisenta

Embers and ash rained down on the hamlet while it was shrouded from a nearby forest fire, forcing the evacuation of almost all the 100 or so residents.

Band manager and senior administrative officer Mark Pocklington said locals had been monitoring the fire, but when it crept to within ten kilometres of the community - perhaps as close as five kilometres - and with high winds and embers landing in the hamlet at about 10 p.m. that night, the decision was made to evacuate.

"Elders, some more than 80 years old, adults, kids and a baby only six months old were among those who had to get loaded into pickup trucks, drive about ten kilometres to the Liard River, get into several boats, cross the river and then take more community-owned trucks into Fort Liard," Pocklington said.

"It was dark. It was windy. The water was rough but no one panicked. We had to hold and carry some of the elders with mobility issues."

Pocklington said most people fled with little more than the clothes on their back.

He said about a half dozen residents volunteered to stay behind and were at the ready with the community fire truck if the fire reached the hamlet which it did not.

Pocklington said that he understands high winds fanned the flames and conditions deteriorated rapidly that night. He added it was a little frustrating to see Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) officials leave the hamlet late in the afternoon, telling residents they were not in danger just hours before they had to flee.

He was also concerned the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) did not warn them or help them leave.

"They weren't too concerned. There was a bit of disconnect between MACA and ENR as to what we should do. You have one person in Fort Liard, another in Fort Simpson and another in Fort Smith and everybody is trying to make decisions and calling me and saying do this or don't go here," Pocklington said.

"We're saying look we're here. We can see for ourselves there's a problem. You can't expect our elders and our kids to hang around because you are telling us the fire is not going to encroach on our community."

Pocklington said he was left with the feeling that people who were hundreds of kilometres away thought they knew better than the people who at the time were in Nahanni Butte itself.

He added that thankfully no one was hurt and no structures were lost.

On Sept. 8, Pocklington said that they had been told by MACA officials to sit tight in Fort Liard for at least one more night while the fire was being monitored.

He said that almost half the people who fled the hamlet stayed in the motel in Fort Liard while others were put up by family members.

Pocklington said that the territorial government should reimburse people for their motel rooms and any other expenses that were incurred.

Kevin Brezinski, Yellowknife-based public safety director for MACA said that the advice to stay in place was issued after consultations with ENR officials and the best information they had at the time. He said he does not feel any mistakes were made by any government officials.

"ENR are the experts on the risk. Based on (their) information there was no cause or risk. None of this is an exact science," Brezinski said.

"The community always has the prerogative to evacuate on its own. They are to be commended for their action."

Rick Olsen, Fort-Smith-based manager of fire operations for ENR said on Sept. 8, that air tankers have been fighting the fire and conditions were being monitored to see if ground firefighters needed to be sent in. He added extremely high winds picked up in the early evening on Sept. 7 and that is what fanned the flames far more than ENR officials had expected they would.

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