Forest Fires: In a crisis, less (information) is not more

Forest fire season didn’t get my attention until mid-July, the time in a normal year when rain quenches fires sparked by early summer electrical storms and wind carries away the smoke that can leach the heat from the warmest day.

This year has been anything but normal. Instead of rain, dry electrical storms swept across the territory, setting off small fires that grew into cells and vast complexes that gorged on the tinder dry forest, filled the sky with smoke and blotted out the sun.

The fires burned into the dog days – rich fuel in the slowest time of year for news media that spread breathless reports of communities threatened, or evacuated. The public joined in with pictures of vast, anvil-shaped clouds of smoke and fire raging at the edge of the forest in a long, livid line.

What finally piqued my interest was a report that fire was “at the city limits,” where a large fuel dump and the airport are situated. I rode out on Highway 3 toward Behchoko, and rode, and rode and rode. There was no fire. Soon after, it was reported that a blaze was 10 km from the city, and then seven. Wrong, and wrong again.

On July 30, smoke from the Birch Lake Complex burning between Behchoko and Fort Providence painted the sky over Yellowknife deep, dusty orange and a dark cloud turned the late afternoon to midnight black. Lightning forked. Thunder rolled. Rain filled dog dishes with sooty, black water. Images were posted on social media with the word “apocalyptic.”

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The day after the four horsemen galloped across the sky, Environment and Natural Resources staged a media briefing at Yellowknife City Hall and broke its curious silence about the fire season. Jack Bird, an assistant deputy minister with the look and bearing of a man with long experience as a firefighter, painted a picture of hard-pressed crews battling 200 fires large and small with pulaski, bulldozer and aircraft. It was the worst Bird had seen in 30 years.

There was good news: the Reid Lake fire that threatened cottages on the Ingraham Trail was under control. Crews had stemmed the advance of Fire 85 that was burning 30 kilometres southwest of Yellowknife, and the Birch Lake Complex no longer menaced Highway 3 between Behchoko and Fort Providence. Was the worst over? Oh no, said Bird, far from it.

The road out of Yellowknife was closed for the August long weekend, deepening a sense of isolation and unease among residents and stranded travelers. Store shelves emptied. Smoke and ash sent the air quality index off the danger scale and some took to wearing protective masks. Alarms sounded over the absence of a visible emergency plan for Yellowknife.

Michael Miltenberger went on the radio to complain about misinformation making the social media rounds, where “the ill informed were pontificating to the uninformed.” Fire crews were exhausted after two months. Costs were mounting – $36 million so far this year, and he was talking to the federal government about bringing the military into the fire effort.

Mayor Mark Heyck had much the same message for those who fretted over the lack of tangible plan.The City has a general emergency plan, the mayor said, but each situation is unique. If fire threatened Yellowknife’s perimeter, that neighbourhood could be evacuated, if necessary. But there was no intention to evacuate the city, even if Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski had extended an invitation.

The most comforting news came from weather reports. Rain and cooler weather pitched in to help firefighters.

Almost 300 fires are burning across the territory, but for the first time this season, the storms have not spawned new blazes. Fire managers and politicians have time to think about how they have handled the situation.

What seasoned politicians should know from experience is that bullshit breeds in a vacuum. If the media were guilty of inaccurate and irrational reporting, the fire managers were tardy in providing accurate information. No news is not good news. The lesson to take from this year is that less is not more when it comes to telling the public what the score is.

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