Anyone who was in Yellowknife last Wednesday will remember the thunderstorm that swept across the city and in an instant turned the late afternoon sky from smoky, lightning-streaked Halloween orange to murky midnight black.
“Apocalyptic” was the word many use to describe the scene and storm that brought the first rain in weeks to the North Slave, slowing the advance of forest fires and filling dog dishes with soot-blackened water.
Soot and ash pushed the Environment Canada air quality index far beyond the scale that stops at 10, where the health hazard is considered extreme. The index reached beyond 25 more than once in the past week.
Highway 3 opened to traffic last Thursday and an evacuation warning was lifted for families living between Yellowknife and Behchoko, but the worst is not over, said Jack Bird, assistant deputy minister of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).
Heavy smoke over the weekend again forced closure of Highway 3 between Behchoko and Fort Providence.
Fire crews, drawn mostly from the territory’s First Nation communities, are tired, Bird said. They have been on the fire lines since late May, working 12-hour days, and want to return home. Fresh recruits will start training next week, and be ready for duty by mid-August.
At present, ENR is concentrating efforts on ZF-85, a 10,000-hectare fire burning 30 km west of Yellowknife. More than 100 people are on the ground, supported by four helicopters and 10 aircraft dropping water and fire retardant, Bird said.
Smoke was so heavy over the weekend that fire fighters assigned to ZF-85 were forced to suspend operations and temporarily withdraw. The fire is about 10 km north of Highway 3 and not considered a threat to the capital.
Efforts to contain the Birch Lake complex, a 650,000-hectare blaze between Behchoko and Fort Providence, and a 367,000-hectare complex north of Yellowknife at Reid Lake, have been successful, Bird said.