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Fire-ravaged N.W.T. hamlet asks for independent inquiry as it looks to rebuild

ENTERPRISE, N.W.T. — Paul Flamand dug through the ashes of his burned-down home in a hamlet known as the gateway to the Northwest Territories. 

The building was lost to a raging wildfire that tore through Enterprise within a matter of hours in August. But a piece of his heart held onto hope that one thing may have survived — his grandfather’s ring. 

He saw a slight shining in the debris, and there it was. 

“It was fine, a little charred up, but the diamonds were still in it. Good enough,” Flamand said in an interview at his plumbing business, which survived the fire. 

Enterprise, a community of about 100 people on the highway north of the Alberta boundary, lost 80 per cent of its structures. 

Local leaders are wondering why there was so much destruction. 

“Once the fire got to that point, nothing could be done,” said Blair Porter, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer. 

“But did it have to get to that point? Those are the questions we’re asking.”

The hamlet traces its humble beginnings to a gas station built soon after the Mackenzie Highway from Grimshaw, Alta., was completed in 1948. 

Enterprise grew into a settlement and quickly became an important stop for people travelling by road to the North. In the decades that followed, motels and a general store popped up and more people came. 

While the growth was never dramatic, in 2007 it officially became a hamlet and Porter said it had big plans to start building a new subdivision to keep people coming.

The community had been watching the fire off in the distance in August. Mayor Michael St. Amour said territorial officials told the hamlet it was being monitored. 

Enterprise built fire guards and set up some sprinklers, but it felt safe. The day before the fire descended, about 600 people were in the hamlet for its annual jamboree.

“Then, Sunday morning the winds were just crazy,” Porter said. 

Around noon, there was a huge smoke cloud breaking through the otherwise blue sky and Porter said officials called the territory’s Municipal and Community Affairs department for information.

“The winds had picked it up and it travelled further than they’d ever seen a fire travel in that short of a period,” Porter said. 

Enterprise leaders say they learned the morning the fire flared up that a briefing with the nearby community of Hay River was taking place. They say they hadn’t been invited. Enterprise council asked to join and allege they were told that, for now, the fire would be fine. 

Councillors decided they’d start telling residents to leave anyway.

Not long after, an emergency alert buzzed on every Enterprise resident’s phone and television. The wildfire threat was imminent. They had to get out. 

“There was no time,” Porter said. “It was a wall of smoke. I’ve never seen that before. It was from ground to sky. You couldn’t see anything above it.”

Porter’s children left with their grandparents as he worked with other leaders, local firefighters and RCMP to ensure everyone made it out. When he finally left town at about 8:30 p.m., he knew it was going to be bad. 

“(It was) like you are driving through hell.”

Many community members say Mike Kimble, his partner Lyne and brother Allan are the reason any structures are left standing. The three have described how they returned quickly and spent days putting out spot fires in Enterprise. 

Still, burned-out cars, the remnants of homes and melted copper sit at the end of most residential driveways.

Community members questioned why there weren’t more firefighting efforts on the ground to save more houses.

Ron Bonnetrouge, who represents Enterprise in the territorial legislature, has called for answers since the legislative assembly resumed last month.

Shane Thompson, the minister for environment and climate change, has said there were firefighting efforts by air and on ground since the blaze was spotted on Aug. 2. Thompson has said extreme wind and environmental conditions were to blame. He also said crews weren’t on the ground to put out spot fires associated with buildings in Enterprise because wildfire crews aren’t trained to deal with those.

St. Amour said those accounts don’t match what people in Enterprise, including himself, saw. He’d like some type of independent inquiry into how the fire spread, the lack of communication and the territorial response. 

Community members had hoped that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would bring help during a tour of the fire-ravaged community this week. While no official announcement was made, the prime minister later said, “We are there to rebuild.”

About 20 people have returned to the small highway-side hamlet, some staying in recreational vehicles outside the gas station. 

Flamand is building a temporary living space in his plumbing business so his children have somewhere to sleep over the winter. Between his insurance company and the territorial government, he doesn’t have much hope he can start to rebuild anytime soon. 

“I’m better off than a lot of the guys in town. At least I’ve got somewhere.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2023. 

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


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