Lodge burns at Fort Reliance in East Arm blaze

Lodge burns at Fort Reliance in East Arm blaze
A fire near the Taltson hydro plant put South Slave communities onto diesel power for a couple of days last week as fire crews fought the blaze, now being held.Photo: GNWT/ENR.

The main building of a family tourism business on the Hoarfrost River near Fort Reliance burned on Friday, becoming the first victim of a nasty fire season as massive wildfires continue to rage throughout the south and central part of the NWT.

The fire at Reliance that burned the area around the Old Lady of the Falls spiritual site last week was pushed by high winds rapidly westward toward the Hoarfrost River on Friday.

“There were huge winds on Friday afternoon. We got a call that the fire was approaching the Hoarfrost,” Frank Lepine, associate director of the Forest Management Division at the NWT Fire Centre, told The Journal.

Though bombers were called in immediately, Lepine said there was too much smoke and no visibility so they could not take action. Fire crews were deployed from Yellowknife to defend the property, but by the time they got there the main house was already burning and they were only able to save the outbuildings.

The lodge served as headquarters for the Hoarfrost River Huskies dog team expedition tourism operation.

Lepine said the wind with gusts up to 90 km per hour that created the firestorm around the lodge was a weather anomaly called a “low level jet” that plagues firefighters.

Meanwhile, the Tlicho community of Gameti is the latest to see a huge wildfire at its doorstep and the Kakisa fire that forced the evacuation of that community is still a serious threat being actioned by firefighters. Crews are also busy on a massive fire that is threatening Plummer’s Lodge at Taltheilei Narrows on the north shore of Great Slave Lake.

The big Consolation Lake fire east of Yellowknife that threatened a number of cabins has now moved west as far as Reid Lake and is within 7 km of Ingraham Trail. There is concern that it and the other two massive fires lined up behind it to the east will join up and become one giant fire. Fire crews are setting up guards to block the area to the west that contains old growth forest and abundant fuels if winds were to push the fire toward Yellowknife and the numerous cabins and homes in that area.

In spite of the huge number of fires throughout the NWT, no other losses than the Hoar Frost Lodge have been reported in the NWT so far, in large part due to the fast response and decisive efforts of the NWT firefightings crews, but Lepine said it also has “a lot to do with luck.”

“These fires are out of control. We are limited to steering actions – and what the weather will do,” he said.

The department of Environment and Natural Resources has millions of dollars invested in resources to protect buildings, and routinely runs kilometres of large volume hoses to the nearest water source in an effort to protect buildings with sprinkler systems, but that is not always enough. Lepine urged people who live in the bush to “fire smart” their properties by clearing surrounding brush and, if possible, setting up their own sprinkler systems.

Rain helps out in South Slave

Rain events over the last week provided significant rainfall in the South Slave around Fort Smith and Fort Resolution, allowing fire crews respite to manage some of the fires in the area that had been threatening values at risk, including one that encroached on the Taltson hydro plant that supplies electricity to South Slave communities. That fire is now in the “mopping up” phase and the hydro power is back on.

The rest of the NWT only received enough “to slow things down,” said Lepine. He said conditions are still very dry and the forests are vulnerable to fire.

“The entire fuel source is dry, from the mineral soils beneath all the way to the tops of the tree.”

Storms cells that have been coming through have been generating an amazing quantity of lightning – often thousands of strikes per day. Lepine said those do not generate a lot of fires because an area blanketed with lightning usually also gets a lot of rain. It is the areas where there are only a few lightning strikes and little rain where fires are usually generated.

“The fewer number of lightning strikes, the more fires,” he said.

On average, about 10 new fires are being started every day in the NWT, all of them by lightning, Lepine said. The forecast for the coming week is for more scattered lightning, showers in some locations, winds and, in some cases, high winds.

There are 161 fires to date in the NWT and the midpoint of the fire season has not yet been reached.

“This is still early July. We could have six more weeks of forest fires until things start to cool off in mid August,” observed Lepine.

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