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City acts on forest fire safety report
Three years and $300,000 'might not be enough' to protect city: public safety director

Randi Beers
Northern News Services
Published Friday, December 19, 2014

This summer's devastating fire season has spurred city administrators to act on a two-year-old GNWT commissioned report with a dozen recommendations on how the city should protect itself against forest fires.

NNSL photo/graphic

Smoke rises into the sky near Blue Fish Dam, where a raven hitting a power transformer in June led to a forest fire. Yellowknife witnessed an hour-long power outage as a result of the blaze. - photo courtesy of James Pugsley

The project, dubbed the Wildland Fire Mitigation Emergency Measures by city's department of public safety, is laid out in the budget as an ongoing capital project starting in 2015.

Administration proposes to spend $100,000 each year until at least 2017 on brush clearing, implementing a fire break system to protect the city's most vulnerable flanks and purchasing emergency structure protection kits.

Coun. Adrian Bell put forward a motion to slash the item last Tuesday night during budget deliberations, arguing it's too broad and it remains unclear to him where the city's jurisdiction ends and the GNWT's begins.

"Before we purchase the (brush clearing) work we should work with (the territorial government) to better flesh out costs and what our role would be exactly," he said, proposing administration only spend $20,000 next year to purchase the emergency structure protection kits.

The kits are made up of a pump with hoses and sprinklers that can be set up around a structure to keep it damp while a fire rages around it.

Just a portion

While council considered paring 2015 funding for the program to just the kits, Dennis Marchiori, public safety director, warned that the $300,000 proposed over the next three years might be just a portion of what the city will ultimately have to spend in order to properly protect the city.

"(The Department of Environment and Natural Resources) is not even sure $300,000 would be enough to cover fire smarting," he said.

"They say it could be upwards to 10 years worth of work dependent on whether contractors do it and whether this could be a wintertime activity as well."

Coun. Linda Bussey told her colleagues she doesn't believe funding the project piecemeal is a good idea.

"We can't have emergency structure kits in place without brush clearing," she said.

"Brush clearing is key to protecting the city environment (from fires) you can't separate them, if you had fire management information they would tell you they go hand-in-hand."

Bell ultimately withdrew his motion to cut the project's budget, admitting he was still uncomfortable with the funding "but if there is any place to feel uncomfortable in giving funding, it's in the area of life-threatening fires."

Report not acted on for two years

In 2012, the territorial government handed the city a report that assessed each area of the city individually for vulnerabilities to forest fires and included about a dozen recommendations on how to mitigate those vulnerabilities.

The report pointed out administration had not acted to remove brush that fuels forest fires to date and warned this is a municipal responsibility within city limits.

The highest risk areas include Range Lake South and the Kam Lake, where there isn't adequate space between structures and the surrounding brush and forest.

The recommendations in the report include encouraging residents to clear brush around their own properties, brush clearing on municipally-owned land in vulnerable areas and developing a community wildfire "pre-plan" that would give help co-ordinate emergency response in the event the city is threatened by wildfires.

Yellowknifer reported in August the city had not acted on these recommendations as of last summer, when the territory was hit with arguably the worst fire season in history.

Marchiori said at the time the GNWT had made a presentation to city administration and administration in turn gave a copy to Fire Chief Darcy Hernblad, but Mayor Mark Heyck admitted he hadn't seen the report.

Marchiori told Yellowknifer the GNWT hadn't offered any funding to implement the report's recommendations and "we had a lot going on back in 2012 when this report came out."

"The project is based on various conversations with (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) officials, including findings from the report," he stated in an e-mail this week.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources declined to comment on negotiations until the department meets with the city again and couldn't provide a date for when that will happen.

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