‘It was a punch’: An Indigenous-run research station in the Northwest Territories was damaged by a wildfire

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FORT SIMPSON, Northwest Territories — A wildfire that nearly destroyed an Indigenous-run research station in the Northwest Territories is expected to have far-reaching effects on environmental research and the community.

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Liidlii Kue First Nation says five of nine buildings at the Scotty Creek Research Station, about 50 kilometers south of Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, were set on fire last weekend, destroying equipment, laboratories and dormitories. Other buildings suffered varying degrees of damage, with some needing to be replaced.

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“It was a punch,” said Dieter Cazon, the First Nation’s lands and resources manager, upon learning of the damage.

“We’re not starting from scratch, but we’re way behind schedule,” said Bill Quinton, research station director and professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Scotty Creek is one of the busiest research stations in Canada’s North and scientists from across Canada and around the world travel there to study environmental factors, such as water resources and thawing permafrost. It also hosts field camps, high school students, and community-oriented events and activities.

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The First Nation, which has worked with researchers since the 1990s, took over the station in August, making it one of the first Indigenous-led research stations in the world. Cazon said the facility brings together Western science and traditional knowledge to fight climate change.

“The Dene monitors and guardians from the Liidlii Kue First Nation love going there,” he said. “It’s a great place to work and participate in learning a bit more about the land in a different way.”

Cazon said they are still assessing the fire damage and making plans to rebuild the camp. For security reasons, he said they would probably not be able to host work at the site next year.

“We will solve this problem. The work we do is too important to be laughed at and talked about.

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Quinton, who helped start the station in 1989, said at least 20 researchers from various universities use the site and over the years he has made many friendships and collaborations through it. He said it was a welcoming place that is important for elders, young people and people spending time on the land.

“There are a lot of people who are really heartbroken,” he said. “The loss is devastating – there’s no doubt about it – but at this point we need to look at what we have and what we can do with what we have left to rebuild.”

Cazon said there will also be community impacts. Researchers traveling to the North bring business to hotels, restaurants and charter airlines.

“I’m sure people will feel a bit of a kick when those extra dollars don’t come into the community next year,” he said.

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Liidlii Kue First Nation criticized the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources for not attacking the wildfire and removing a sprinkler system while the fire was still active.

Forest fire information officer Mike Westwick said sprinklers and other structure guards successfully protected the site from the first pass of the wildfire, but were removed last Thursday due to frost problems.

He said firefighters could not safely attack the blaze directly due to extreme winds, which pushed the blaze toward the research station.

“We will never recklessly send personnel into danger. And with the behavior of the fires in the area, that’s what we would do if we ordered them to attack this fire directly, ”he wrote in an email.

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“We really feel for everyone affected by the losses at Scotty Creek.”

Westwick said late last week that a fire crew and helicopter worked to contain the damage, but ice on nearby bodies of water made it difficult to pick up water.

“It’s just a sign of the amazing season we’re seeing. When we are fighting fires and protecting structures, it is very unusual for there to be a threat of freezing temperatures.

This year’s wildfire season was the most severe the territory has seen since the extremes of 2014, with the total area burned exceeding the 10-year average and nearly tripling the five-year average.

A total of 257 fires have broken out in the territory this year, 30 of which are still active, burning a total of about 6,866 square kilometers.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 22, 2022.

— by Emily Blake in Yellowknife.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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