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Fire escape plan kindles village council's support
Fort Simpson wants answers on pressing emergency questions

April Hudson
Northern News Services
Thursday, July 9, 2015

Fort Simpson remains without a detailed fire evacuation plan as a 100 square kilometre wildfire still rages 35 kilometres south of the village.

NNSL photo/graphic

A fire four kilometres from Jean Marie River is 90 per cent contained and is not expected to cause any more trouble, but was still billowing thick smoke on June 28. At one point, it doubled in size to more than two square kilometres. - photo courtesy of Derwin Clille

Frank Lepine, director of forest management with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), said on June 6 that the fire - Deh Cho no. 48 - is one of seven fires involved in a group of fires near Antoine Lake, dubbed the Antoine Lake Complex. Five of those seven are already out or under control, and fire crews are just beginning to take action on no. 48.

"We expect we will be on that fire for at least another three or four weeks," Lepine said.

Fire crews plan to focus on the north end of the fire by tying it into the Liard River, as well as a series of swamps south of Fort Simpson.

"What we'd like to do is either have the fire burn into the Liard River or build a line and burn it through the river," Lepine said

"The reason we like these big, natural barriers is they're something for us to anchor on to and they give us a water supply ... Hopefully, we can just cut off the north side of it and then monitor the fire from then on."

Lepine's department is currently not concerned about the wind direction in the Fort Simpson area and cool weather is expected through until the weekend.

However, Lepine said the department's meteorologist has predicted a high-pressure ridge building over the territory beginning Sunday and lasting for two weeks, bringing with it "some really high temperatures."

"Any of the fires we're not actioning, we expect a lot of growth on them during that period," Lepine said.

"We're (also) going to see a lot of smoky conditions over the next little while."

While Lepine said the village is not currently in danger, he added that it would not take much for the fire to close the 35 km gap to Fort Simpson.

Earlier in the week, village councillors were expected to have a committee meeting to discuss Fort Simpson's evacuation plan.

Mayor Sean Whelly said although Fort Simpson has a detailed flood plan and an emergency plan with a section on forest fires, there are no specific guidelines around forest fire preparedness.

"Basically, we take the advice of (ENR)," Whelly said.

During a regular council meeting on July 6, Deputy Mayor Stella Nadia said the village needs to step up and start planning for emergencies.

"It always seems like we wait until the 11th hour before doing something," she said.

At her request, the fire plan will be discussed at committee along with the flood plan.

Whelly said one of the biggest problems is the lack of engagement between ENR and the village.

"We're just not that aware. I'm pretty sure ENR has plans and they talk about scenarios ... We need to be more engaged and connected to what they're thinking," he said.

"We know the fire is about 35 kilometres away right now - what happens when it gets to be 20? Do we still just sit around and say, 'It's OK,' until it's 10, and then we panic? There are things we should probably be telling residents right now, when a fire is within so many kilometres of the community, such as to keep your vehicles full of gas and have your valuables or things you would need easily accessible in your house."

One of the major problems Whelly anticipates is the bottleneck at the ferry if an evacuation were to take place. He estimates that unlike other communities in the territory, Fort Simpson would need at least an extra day to evacuate.

"The actual evacuation would be very fluid and could be different in every situation.

But one thing we have to get clear with ENR is the time factor: how much time are we going to get, when the notice to evacuate happens?" he said.

"We have to go across the ferry, so we need even more time. How far can a fire go in a day in a bad situation? Is that leeway built into their plans? I don't know."

As of June 6, 143 fires were burning in the NWT with 51 of those in the Deh Cho region.

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