Surrounded by forest on all sides except a highway along one edge, residents of the Hamlet of Enterprise lived right “in the middle of the bush.” Many praised the area for its peaceful solitude.
For a wildfire risk assessment, the same area looks very different.
Although fires can jump highways and embers can travel miles to ignite a fire, the highway and the Hay River created a fire break on the eastern border of the hamlet. That allowed this summer’s fire prevention efforts to focus on the dry, dense forest around the rest of the community.
Just six years ago, the hamlet was celebrated as the first NWT community to become “Firesmart certified,” meaning the community had conducted a wildfire hazard assessment and create a Firesmart plan, then volunteers had worked on a clean-up that “removed potential fire hazards from the community’s boundaries.”
Now, after much of the hamlet was destroyed by a wildfire in August, leaders are looking back at what happened.
“It’s always been the consensus of the residents and councils through the years that forest fires are in our backyard, they’re coming this way,” said Enterprise fire chief Craig McMaster, who was the hamlet’s mayor when the community developed its FireSmart plan.
“Preparation. That’s all we can do, is prepare ourselves in advance of these kinds of disasters coming our way.”
The community’s Firesmart certification required that it develop a fire safety plan, according to Blair Porter, senior administrative officer of the hamlet and then-fire chief. This plan involved risk assessments and steps to address those risks, like clearing away dry and dead brush, thinning some wooded areas and expanding fire breaks.
In order to keep its Firesmart designation, Enterprise was required to continue working towards the plan’s established goals and updating it as needed. In the years since the Firesmart plan was established, leadership changed hands and efforts to progress the plan fluctuated, according to Porter.
More was done in some years than others, he said. “This year, we again went hard at it. We actually finished our wildfire breaks according to the plan this year.”
In May this year, with the support of the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, the hamlet reassessed its wildfire risk to inform a new fire safety plan.
That assessment determined wildfire risk in terms of the likelihood of a fire breaking through into the community, then the likely severity of damage in the event of a fire.
The assessment concluded Enterprise was vulnerable to wildfire and “the likelihood of that happening was not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” according to Porter.
“Combined, we determined that wildfire was more likely than other things – even a structural fire was not nearly as likely as a wildfire,” Porter explained. “We determined that that was the number-one risk to Enterprise and it turns out that, unfortunately, that is the case.”
While Enterprise was reassessing its risk of wildfire in the spring, a wildfire was burning just 40 km north near Hay River and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, prompting the first fire-related evacuations of 2023.
With fires burning nearby, the hamlet mobilized after its May assessment, finishing new fire breaks, expanding others and ordering sprinkler systems, pumps, and hoses.
“I honestly believe that because we had done what we did in May, that’s what saved that southern neighbourhood there,” Porter said of the Enterprise structures that still remain almost half a year later. “That gave that neighbourhood a fighting chance.”
“We did a lot of work, actually, before that unfortunate fire came through,” he continued. “I’m a firm believer that Firesmarting works, and it’s something that needs to be done in advance, and it needs to be done to a certain point. It can’t just be done half-heartedly.”
So, what happened in Enterprise?
Firesmarting is a tool to give firefighters a chance against a wildfire by improving their access to areas, removing fuel from a fire and protecting key infrastructure.
“Firesmarting is designed to work in conjunction with firefighting crews,” said Porter.
“The idea is to get rid of all those things that could easily ignite, and then the fire won’t advance as quickly.”
The circumstances of the August 13 wildfire that destroyed much of Enterprise were, however, beyond anything a Firesmart plan was expected to cover.
As the NWT’s wildfire agency has repeatedly stressed, that day’s fire was driven by the wind to cover a distance unlike anything crews had previously seen.
“With this fire, once it got to that point – with winds gusting at 90 to 100 km/h, moving at a clip of about 20 km/h – there’s nothing anybody could’ve done,” said Porter.
“As a community, we did everything right to prepare,” said McMaster. “Before, during, and after, we’re doing everything correct. And it’s still very, very tough.”
“We’re witnessing fires that are the word unprecedented,” McMaster continued. “This is a new world and new fires. We’re going to have to reassess the situation and maybe decide on other measures on how to fight fires.”
As the community prepares to rebuild, its council plans to introduce a beautification bylaw, which will include Firesmart principles for every property that gets rebuilt, according to Porter.
He intends to secure funding from the GNWT to purchase fire-resistant materials for infrastructure, invest in more fire breaks, and educate residents on Firesmart principles to protect their homes.
Porter says future Firesmarting must involve residents as much as the hamlet, and everyone needs to participate to keep the community safe. That starts with education, which can make all the difference.
“There was a juniper tree that was just outside a house, right beside a window,” Porter said.
“The juniper tree would catch on fire. And all the work that had been done on the house, in the yard, really didn’t matter, because that one caught on fire – and then that melted the vinyl window, and then got into the structure and burnt the house down.
“So, it has to be followed through right to the nines, because if it doesn’t, then it could be that Achilles heel that kinda negates all of the work that was put into it.”