‘It’s just a scary situation’: Yukoners react to being on evacuation alert as fires continue to burn

As fires continue to burn across the Yukon, some residents in the affected areas are getting prepared to leave as soon as possible if they’re ordered to, but not everyone.

Norma Meese, 76, lives with her husband by Stewart River, about 13 kilometres outside of Mayo.

She said there’s so much smoke, “we can’t even see across the river now.”

Mayo is one of several communities for which the territorial government has issued evacuation alerts as 161 fires, as of Friday, burn in the Yukon. The other communities include Elsa, Keno, Moose Lodge Creek, the Victoria Gold Mine as well as Stewart Crossing and surrounding areas.

If an evacuation order is issued, the government said residents should be prepared to leave within two hours of being notified.

But Meese said if that happens, she and her husband aren’t leaving their home.

“We told the [government officials] that we’re not going anywhere because there’s no place to go,” she said. “They don’t tell you where to go or they have no idea where to go.”

The North Klondike Highway from Stewart Crossing to Pelly Crossing, which is south of Mayo, is closed because of “unpredictable, dangerous fire behaviour” as of Friday evening, according to the Yukon government.

“The only other way is toward Dawson City,” said Meese. “And there’s nothing out there. Where are you supposed to go?”

‘The situation is a bit hairy’

Meanwhile, Carole Kroening, who along with her husband owns and operates Stepping Stone, a Yukon Quest hospitality stop near Fort Selkirk where the Yukon and Pelly rivers meet, said they’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

“We all have a grab-and-go bag that’s waiting on the front deck and we can be in the boats in five minutes,” she said.

Smoke from a forest fire is seen in the mountains near a cabin.
Fires are burning about 15 minutes away from Stepping Stone, a Yukon Quest hospitality stop near Fort Selkirk. (Submitted by Carole Kroening)

Kroening added the fire started Monday and has been moving slowly toward them.

“The situation is a bit hairy,” she said.

“If we were going on an afternoon hike, it would take us about 15 minutes to get [to the fire].”

Fires burn across the Pelly River from Stepping Stone, a Yukon Quest hospitality stop near Fort Selkirk, Yukon. (Submitted by Carole Kroening)

She said that on Tuesday, wildland fire officials gave her advice on how to fire smart her property as well as other buildings in the community.

She’s been getting as many sprinklers set up as she can.

She said that in 2006, there was a forest fire that stopped about a kilometre away from the community but this one is scarier because “we can see it so well.”

‘It’s just a scary situation’

Just outside of Stewart Crossing, Elizabeth Blair is also prepared to leave right away if needed.

“We do have a van out there that’s packed with some stuff if we do have to, all of a sudden, go,” she said.

“It’s just a scary situation because you can’t predict anything with fire. If we got a big wind, it could just head this way.”

She said she has a water pump set up and a well that has a long hose but on Thursday, she wanted to get a sprinkler system set up too.

A fire burns by a lake.
The Frances Lake fire is burning along the Robert Campbell Highway, which is closed between between Watson Lake and Ross River. (Yukon government)

She made calls but said no one seemed to be able to help so she posted a message on Facebook asking for help.

“And within an hour, the [wildland fire] group from B.C. were here and got to set up with what they had left. So it was enough for us to have a few sprinklers up,” she said.

Blair is very grateful for the help.

She said she expects that the current fire situation in the Yukon to be the new normal and hopes that officials with the territorial and First Nation governments are better organized in the future than they seem to be this year.

“Hopefully, there is going to be a whole set of, you know, just instructions where a person could call someone … who knows what to do to evacuate or whatever,” she said.

‘They’re worried’

Mayo-Tatchun MLA Jeremy Harper, who grew up in Pelly Crossing, has been in the community this past week helping relay information to his constituents.

He said he’s been getting a lot of calls from them.

“They’re worried,” he said.

“The fire is close to their residences and we want to make sure that they have adequate sprinklers or have a crew to come in to help cut a fire brim around their house to make sure that their property or their trapping cabin or their hunting cabin is protected,” he said.

He added the community has “adequate” supplies now that the 100-person crew from British Columbia that is helping out with fighting the wildfires in the territory, set up camp at the Pelly Crossing airport.

He said the B.C. crew will be dispatched to different locations to put up sprinkler systems or brims around some properties.

Harper said he’s keeping in touch with elders and First Nations leadership to make sure they have all the information they need from emergency officials.

“Our leadership is relaying a lot of good information to citizens so that they’re always updated,” he said.

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