SAMBAA K'E, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES — A home in Sambaa K'e has been destroyed during an ignition operation as an out-of-control wildfire grew closer Monday to the small Dene community in the Northwest Territories.
The territorial government said the operation between the airstrip and the lake was meant to burn available fuel to create a break between the wildfire and the community previously known as Trout Lake.
The territory said, however, an unexpected thunderstorm caused the test fire to flare up and, despite efforts to extinguish it, the blaze crossed the airstrip toward the home Sunday evening. It said containing the test fire was difficult because aircraft were unable to fly due to low visibility created by smoke.
"This is first and foremost a tragedy for the family. Our government will immediately begin work with the family that has lost their home to get them the help they need," Mike Westwick, wildfire information officer with the Department of Environment and Climate Change, said in a statement.
"We're in the business of protecting people and property in the wildfire program and it is deeply upsetting when things go wrong."
The wildfire near the Alberta boundary was last estimated to have burned about 2,029 square kilometres in the territory and is now 15 kilometres from Sambaa K'e.
Residents of the community, which is home to about 97 people, were ordered to evacuate the area Wednesday when the fire was 30 kilometres away.
An evacuation centre has been set up at the recreation centre and community hall in Fort Simpson where daily meals are being served.
Mayor Sean Whelly said most of the roughly 70 evacuees in the community are staying with family or friends or at the territorial campground. He said about 10 elders are staying in a vacant student residence while others are living in hotels.
"We're very hopeful that the Sambaa K'e residents will be able to get back home, but while they're here, they're our guests in Fort Simpson, and we're trying to do everything we can to make their unplanned visit as comfortable as possible," he said.
"We're very happy to step up and do what we can in this kind of an emergency."
The territorial government said thick smoke and shifting gusty winds are making fighting the fire challenging and will lead to extreme fire behaviour.
It said efforts will focus on protecting structures using sprinklers and back burning. Crews will also expand fuel breaks to the south of the community using heavy equipment, and use air support as conditions allow.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.
— By Emily Blake in Yellowknife
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press