'How did we let that happen?': Questions swirl around fire that razed Enterprise, N.W.T.
Dec 17, 2023
Weeks after a wildfire tore through his community, Enterprise, N.W.T., Mayor Mike St Amour is still putting out the odd hotspot with a garden hose.
Walking amid the rubble has given him time to reflect on what happened in the days leading up to the fire that he says destroyed about 90 per cent of his community.
He says there were gaps in communication between his community and the territorial government, and he's frustrated by the lack of resources deployed to try and stop the fire — though he admits he's unsure whether it would have made a difference.
"They could have had sprinklers out here … and we could have set up a wall of water," he said. "That might have done something. With the amount of wind that was going on that day I don't think it would have. Who knows?"
On Aug. 13, a wildfire that was burning near Kakisa, N.W.T., took a run to the east, ultimately forcing the evacuation of Enterprise and Hay River on the same day. The speed with which the fire moved is difficult to comprehend. Estimates from officials in the days after said the fire moved between 40 and 75 kilometres.
The two communities are in the Northwest Territories' South Slave region, about 200 kilometres southwest of Yellowknife on the opposite side of Great Slave Lake. Enterprise counts about 120 residents, while Hay River has about 3,800.
In the weeks since the evacuation, the fire has continued to grow. Its burn area has ballooned to more than 417,000 hectares.
Anything unprotected in its path has been left charred, if not completely sent up in flame. Now the fire's burning about 1.5 kilometres of Hay River's centre.
On Aug. 13 — a Sunday — St Amour said the community was hosting a "gospel breakfast" and residents could see smoke.
In the afternoon, he said he received a message from Kátł'odeeche First Nation Chief April Martel, asking why he wasn't part of an emergency management organization meeting.
"Nobody contacted us," he said. "We were listening in to what was going on around the table and we jumped off and started an evacuation."
At 10 p.m. that night, NorthwesTel reported that wildfires took down telecommunication services in multiple communities, including Enterprise, Hay River, Fort Providence and Fort Resolution. Internet, cell and phone service wasn't restored until Aug. 18, five days later.
St Amour said the territory needs to re-think how it addresses wildfires.
"When you let a forest fire burn itself out, this is what happens," he said.
In the past, the community has tried to prevent this exact scenario, even working to become FireSmart certified.
During a one-day Legislative Assembly session on Monday, Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge, who represents Enterprise, said he wants an investigation into how resources were handled in the days leading up to the fire.
"How did we let that happen?"
According to Mike Westwick, fire information officer with the N.W.T. government, the fire sparked on Aug. 2.
"We were actioning it within two hours; we had folks on the ground there," said Westwick.
The fire was about three hectares when first discovered, he said. By the time crews arrived on site, it had grown to 120 hectares.
"It had already grown exponentially a couple of times over," he said.
Westwick said the territory uses a network of towers, including one in Enterprise, with 360-degree detection cameras and tower people to help monitor for wildfires.
"Our problem that day was not that we did not know where the fire was — we were very well aware of where the fire was," he said.
"The problem was a confluence of extreme winds beyond our forecasts, built up fuel in the environment, highly flammable spruce forest, and drought in the area which meant fire moving at a truly extraordinary speed. It is because we knew where the fire was that we knew it was moving at that kind of speed."
Asked whether crews ever moved away from the fire, Westwick said, "There are certain times where, as a matter of course, that you do move folks away from the fire's front, but they have been consistently actioning that fire since the moment it started."
In that time, he said, crews managed to keep it away from Highway 1, and the fire was "in a pretty secure position."
With winds forecasted to reach 50 kilometres per hour on Aug. 13, crews knew the fire was going to grow significantly.
"What we actually wound up seeing were winds that reached upwards of 70 to 80 kilometres per hour," said Westwick. "In some cases even more. And that's weather that's influenced by the fire itself."
He added that strong winds, smoky skies and rapid movement of the fire led to conditions being unsafe for any firefighters to be on the ground or in the air.
"I've said this before, it wouldn't have mattered," said Westwick. "You're not putting people in front of that fire. The first job at the end of the day is to get people home safe. People is number one, property comes next."
Still, many those properties contained everything residents had.
"The reality is we lost 17 years of our life in that house," said Tammy Neal.
Neal and her partner Eric Bertrand bought the former Captain's Cabins property near the Deh Cho bridge in Fort providence in October 2021. They revamped the place and re-opened as Mackenzie Cabins in June 2022. They were at the property when the fire came rushing toward Enterprise.
Neal said her daughter sent her a photo the morning of Aug. 13 of the smoke near the community.
"It was different," she said. "It was low and it was like a big puff. I showed Eric and he said it's low, so it's close. That's when we started to get worried."
Neal and Bertrand wanted to go back to their Enterprise home, but the highway had already closed.
"We were stuck here. We couldn't do anything except hope for the best," said Neal.
About three and a half hours later, her daughter, Natasha Cleary, sent her another message saying the community was evacuating.
Throughout the day, Cleary said residents wondered where community leaders were to tell them what was happening.
"I think it was a couple hours later they finally got ahold of people, but then we only had an hour to leave," said Cleary. "It was scary. It was too fast."
Cleary left with her husband, their six kids, two dogs, a cat, five kittens and a bearded dragon. They drove to Alberta with their camper, ultimately landing in Nampa at a friend's farm.
"It was emotional, we didn't know what we were going to come back to," she said.
"I was just glad we got out safe and it didn't come through in the night because then that would've been a totally different scenario."
Neal and Bertrand have been staying near Fort Providence. Between foster kids in their care and some of their grandchildren, there are 11 people in the house.
Both mother and daughter lost their homes in the wildfire that destroyed most of the community.
There's a single item Neal hopes to find when they're finally allowed back to dig through the rubble: her son's ashes.
"That's the only thing I really care about finding," she said.
Bertrand briefly went to the site of their home and took photos of what was left. He showed Neal and she said it felt like "seeing a horror film, just black and nothing left."
It's been more than two weeks since the evacuation and there's no sign of when residents can return.
"It's weird to think we left and everything was there and mostly everything is gone," said Cleary. "We all want to go back and see what is there, but we understand that we can't yet. I think in order to heal we're gonna need to see it."
Both Neal and Cleary say that caring for their kids has given them something to focus on.
"You feel so many different emotions, from anger to sadness, and then giggling for nothing like your heart is just confused," said Neal.
"Those were the initial feelings and now that the reality has set in. It's depressing and sad. It's really hard to do things on a day-to-day basis because you have this on your mind."
Cleary said her kids don't quite understand the magnitude of what has happened, "but they felt it."
"They're doing OK, they have moments mostly before bedtime they get emotional and think about everything they did lose, but you try your best to comfort them," she said.
Neal and Cleary also wonder how the fire ripped through the community so quickly, without much warning.
"I feel like we should've known more about this fire way before it happened," said Cleary.
Neal said she feels like the fire "wasn't taken seriously."
"It went all the way to here, almost wiped out a whole community because somebody made a bad judgment call, and that's from the top."
She also said community leaders should have been giving residents updates more often.
As the weeks stretch on, evacuees feel the financial strain of being away from work and home.
The territorial government has announced two financial support programs, giving $750 if a resident's employment was disrupted by an evacuation, and $750 if you drove out of the N.W.T.
"That doesn't cut it," said St Amour.
The council of Enterprise has decided to give every adult resident $1,000 and an additional $250 per child.
St Amour said the hamlet is willing to do multiple payments until its surplus is depleted. He estimates that money will run out in about six weeks.
"Enterprise has been footing the bill" without any support from the territory, he said.
Jay Boast, spokesperson for the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), said his department continues to work with communities to reimburse eligible expenses related to the evacuations.
"MACA acknowledges that unfortunately there have been delays over the past few weeks due to the fire situation across the N.W.T., including in Enterprise." he said in an email. "Our Regional Office is in regular contact with community leadership and will be discussing next steps to support re-entry and recovery activities with them."
"I'm disappointed 100 per cent with the [N.W.T. government]," said St Amour. "You go through [Environment and Climate Change], MACA, the premier, Finance department, wherever you want, I'm disappointed. Step up or move out of the way."
St Amour said he hopes to have residents back before the snow, sometime between mid-September and early October.
That time frame depends on how quickly assessors can access the community.
In the meantime, he said community staff are trying to get quotes for temporary single and double units.
"It's all up in the air," he said.
Still, he's motivated to rebuild.
"It's going to bring the South Slave stronger," he said. "With help or not, we're going to rebuild."
Neal isn't so sure.
"I think it would be hard to build where we were because it's black," she said. "All the forest around us is black."
Francis Tessier-Burns is a journalist based in Yellowknife. Originally from rural eastern Ontario, he has covered communities across Denendeh since 2019. He joined CBC North in April 2023. You can reach him at [email protected]
With files from Juanita Taylor, Rachel Zelniker and Tyson KoschikWATCH | The devastation in Enterprise: