The Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow has been set up as a clean air cooling centre should air conditions worsen in the territory’s northern-most community.
In an interview from Old Crow this morning, John Coyne, manager of the emergency management unit with Health and Social Services, said officials with the territory arrived on Saturday to
assess the situation and get to work on setting up the centre in the school.
They arrived following concerns expressed Friday by the Vuntuct Gwitchin First Nation and nursing centre staff over the impact the smokey conditions could have on those in the community with underlying health conditions as well as the elderly and the youngest members of the community. The department has also been consulting with the territory’s chief medical officer of health on the matter.
Supplies for the centre and for the staff sent in included everything from air filters and conditioners to camping gear to ensure staff had accommodation without burdening the community, along with cots, food and other necessities for the centre.
Wildfires in the area have created the smokey conditions and have seen sprinkler systems and fire smarting at the Rampart House historic site.
Coyne said the smoke “was clearly evident” in the community when officials arrived and the decision was soon made to set up the school as a centre.
“It is unprecedented in Old Crow,” Coyne said of getting things set up for such a centre, noting that in the past in such conditions those at risk would more likely be medevaced out to a community with cleaner air.
Moving people out of their home community, however, can have detrimental effects, he said, noting it can disrupt family and community life.
A clean air cooling centre, he explained, creates a safe place within the community to get away from the smoke where the climate is better controlled and food is provided to those who need it.
Over the past few days, Coyne’s work has taken him from a role of coordinating the centre to training the “no less than 16 volunteers” who have signed on to staff the facility, should it need to be used.
While there’s at least 16 volunteers for the centre, there’s many more who have offered or have already helped out in a variety of ways.
“Everybody in the community has stepped up to help,” he said, noting some of the six Yukon government staff who had come in on Saturday have already left Old Crow as the transition has gone smoothly to have the community take over as much as possible.
“We are in the midst of transitioning right now,” he said. “The strength is in the community.”
Many elders have been sharing their memories with officials of previous fires in the region, some recalling the 1940s when fires would be fought by community members using buckets of water to douse the flames. Others remember being evacuated to Inuvik years ago when the smoke risk became too high.
With school out for the summer, Coyne said it was the right spot for the centre. It’s set up to accommodate up to 50 people, but could accommodate most in the community if necessary.
Separate areas of the school have been identified for cots to be placed, counselling services to be provided, children’s activities as well as areas where elders can share their knowledge, with many elders volunteering to do that.
Today, an open house was being held with volunteers tasked with the roles they may take on if the centre is activated.
Windy conditions yesterday saw the smokey conditions dissipate somewhat, but Coyne said officials are watching the weather conditions very carefully and are ready to have the centre running if need be.
“At the very least we’ve built capacity,” he said.
This morning’s fire report noted that yesterday’s winds saw gusts of 90 kilometers an hour. While the fire activity increased it was away from the community and Rampart House.
“Tuesday saw significant fire behaviour with one fire alone making a run of 34 kilometers,” said Yukon Duty Officer Mike Sparks. “The closest fire to the community was also active and visible from town but fortunately the winds were pushing the fire away from the community.”
Yukon Wildland Fire Management was set to send a crew including three senior officers and a helicopter to the area in addition to the 12 firefighters, three senior officers and two helicopters already there.
Paddlers continue to be advised against traveling the Snake, Wind and Bonnet Blume rivers.
Meanwhile, firefighters in Mayo are continuing to battle the 62-hectare fire burning 11 km northeast of the community.
A blaze around kilometer 284 of the Dempster Highway area is continuing to burn. Travellers along the highway can expect closures, delays and smoky conditions to continue.
In total the territory has seen 79 wildfires burn close to 240,000 ha this season. All fire districts are currently listed at a low risk with the exception of Old Crow, which is at a moderate risk.