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Premier breaks silence on forest fires
Bob McLeod says speaking out has potential to breed fear

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 11, 2014

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Premier Bob McLeod said he hasn't spoken out about forest fires in the NWT until now because he didn't want to breed fear among residents.

"I don't want to excite people when there is no imminent threat to their safety," he said.

He said to do so may cause people to think that if the premier is addressing the fires, then maybe they're worse than they actually are.

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This banner, hanging alongside Old Airport Road in Yellowknife, thanks firefighters. Premier Bob McLeod also acknowledged their efforts this week. - photo courtesy Environment and Natural Resources Department

The premier was responding to questions from News/North after some members of the public and at least one MLA criticized him last week for not speaking publicly about the fires since they broke out in May.

McLeod said he has confidence in the officials who are in charge of fighting the fires, making sure the roads are safe and communicating and sharing information with the public.

He said other than the firefighters themselves, people's safety has not be threatened by the fires.

"We are a ministerial government," he said. "Mr. Miltenberger is the environment and Natural Resources minister. That department is in charge of fighting the fires and he's the minister who oversees that. He and his department, and all GNWT workers as well as our partners from outside the territory have done an excellent job on this."

McLeod said the territorial government had spent about $36 million fighting fires so far this season.

He added, however, the season could stretch out another month and a half or so due to a lack of rainfall in the weather forecast and because of some of the driest conditions ever seen in the NWT.

"We budgeted $8 million this year for forest fire suppression and we had $25 million in reserve for firefighting. We've obviously exceeded those totals," he said

McLeod said going over the budget doesn't mean they'll allocate more money next year for fire suppression.

"You don't calculate budgets on what might happen," he said. "You can't predict the weather months in advance so this bad fire season will not figure into our budget calculations for next year."

McLeod said he's appreciative and thankful for help the NWT has received from other provinces and territories, and Alaska.

However, he points out the agreement that's in place that commits other jurisdictions to help has existed for about 40 years.

"This year it was our turn. Next year it may be somebody else's," he said. "We've helped in the past and those other provinces know that if their own forest fire situation is bad in the future, they can count on the NWT for help. We've contributed significant resources in the past and the mutual aid agreements that we are partners in means we're obligated to help if we're allied on in the future," McLeod said.

"But I want to make it clear that it makes me feel very good to know that people from across Canada and elsewhere are willing to help us."

Climate change is likely a factor that contributed to this year's bad forest fire season, McLeod said.

"We listened closely roughly 20 years ago when experts were telling us that global warming was leading to drier conditions and could lead to worse forest fire seasons," he said. "So I'm not shocked this has happened. The issue of climate change is not exclusive to the NWT. We have taken action to reduce our emissions and we do have a greenhouse gas strategy that we are updating."

News/North also asked McLeod about a two-year-old GNWT report on how to make Yellowknife less vulnerable to wildfires and the fact the city hadn't acted upon it.

"We work with all communities in the NWT on their emergency preparedness and ways they can FireSmart their homes and businesses," he said.

"I can't speak to what the city did or didn't do. They have to take their own budgets into consideration when prioritizing where to spend money. But the city is surrounded by water and we have a lot of Canadian Shield, a lot of rock. We wouldn't likely go up in smoke the way the community of Slave Lake, Alberta did a few years back."

He said individuals must take some responsibility in making sure their property is protected against forest fires.

McLeod said the fires have had an impact on the tourism industry, but suggested it might not be as bad as some have suggested.

"People from outside the territory, who were coming to the Yellowknife area to camp but couldn't because the highway was closed, likely camped near Hay River or Fort Providence. So tourism dollars are still being spent in the NWT," he said. "Yes, we've had to refund some money to campers who couldn't pitch tents at Reid Lake because it was closed while firefighters used it. But it's not a huge sum of money. I'd guess maybe we spent $100,000 on that."

McLeod was optimistic that the cooler weather this past week could signal the beginning of the end of the forest fire season.

"Operations are winding down in some parts of the territory, but the firefighting efforts remain at full strength in the North and South Slave as well as the Deh Cho region where the fires have been bigger and more serious," he said.

McLeod said he is very proud of the way firefighters, residents and the territorial government have handled one of the worst forest fire situations ever experienced in the territory.

"For the firefighters, it's a testament to their call of duty as well as their expertise and experience.

That's why we haven't seen any loss of life and property damage has been kept to a minimum," he said.

McLeod said he won't know what, if anything, could have been done better until all officials debrief.

He said that won't happen likely until the fall when the fire season is over.

Fires continue

Warmer temperatures and little or no rain this week may bring new forest fires to the NWT according to Judy McLinton, spokesperson with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

"Rain in the South Slave and Deh Cho regions helped a lot last week as did cooler temperatures in the North Slave.

"I would describe the last few days as a temporary reprieve, a brief respite only."

McLinton says it's been more humid at night at that's creating dew which has also helped.

However, she said if the warmer temperatures return as forecasted then the fires will again become more active.

"We still have well over 300 firefighters on the ground. The bulk of them are from here. But there's still more than 100 firefighters from Ontario and Manitoba helping us. Some out-of-territory fire fighters have returned home and won't likely be replaced. Others have had their contracts extended,"McLinton said.

Jack Bird, assistant deputy minister with ENR said late last month that new firefighters are currently being trained in Fort Smith.

He said some seasonal firefighters have had enough and are returning home when their contract ends. For many of them that was Aug. 10.

Meanwhile, ENR stated in its daily update Friday that there are now 301 active fires in the NWT.

As of press time Sunday, no fires had started since Saturday.

More are expected to start as temperatures rise.

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