Dear Friends of Aurora Heat,
We want to share our experience of the last few months and express our gratitude for the support of so many. As you may know, our small community faced one of the hazardous risks of living in Northern Canada.
The rhythm of the boreal forest is to burn, cycles of renewal always follow which creates balance. However, the abnormal wildfires of 2023 have wreaked havoc on our lives, displacing us from our homes and challenging us in ways never before experienced. The Climate Crisis, ironically, affects the lesser populated areas of the northern and southern hemisphere more severely.
Dangerous Conditions began Last Spring
This past winter brought very mild temperatures and a notable lack of snowfall to the Northwest Territories. These changes in weather created many challenges for animals and for us, humans. The lack of snow and unstable ice conditions made travel difficult and navigating the lakes, streams and rivers became uncertain, keeping many harvesters off the Land.
Spring came quickly and the melt was swift with little to no precipitation. We were experiencing record breaking temperatures in early spring with virtually no rainfall. This trend has continued with the current drought index measured at 1200. Extreme is considered 300. This means, the fires have more fuel and burn hotter and down deeper into the forest floors. The winds have also increased and are stronger, fanning the fires and expanding their reach.
In early spring, Elders and Land-based people were predicting an unmanageable wildfire season, many questioning the community's preparedness.
The Fires Grew
The first fires were started by lightning, as are 95% of the fires in the boreal forest. The Town of Fort Smith and the Smith Landing Reserve quickly issued a complete fire ban. We were soon spending more time indoors on the smoke filled days. My Covid cough returned, and I was again wearing masks outdoors. It also became a necessity for local officials to update the community more regularly. The weather channels monotonously reported on the hot, dry, and windy conditions with no rain and dangerous, off-the-chart smoke readings.
On June 29, we received the first Notice: Be aware as the fires are growing and are uncontrolled. Fort Smith was surrounded by wildfires on all sides, and the sounds of water bombers, helicopters, and heavy equipment became our everyday background noise.
In all of this, I learned of the Indigenous ways of the past. Knowledge keepers would ignite and control burns to manage forest growth and create healthy renewal. As with so many other sacred and intelligent practices, the Indigenous peoples, my relatives, were banned from caring for the Land as they had for millenia.
August 12th Mass Evacuation
A State of Emergency along with an evacuation ORDER came early on August 12th. We were told to leave within 8 hours. In another two weeks, astonishingly, over 70% of the Northwest Territories' population, 26,000 people, would be under evacuation order. We left by highway in vehicles, and by commercial and military planes. Thousands of people and their pets were displaced, so many tossed into uncertainty and turmoil.
I recall that unsettling experience of packing up and leaving Fort Smith within hours, and then having to urgently evacuate a second time from Hay River, not 24 hours later. Hay River is the town my sisters and cousins call home. They have faced three evacuations this year alone: a devastating flood in the spring and two separate threatening wildfires.
My son, grandson and I were among the final few to travel the winding highway from Hay River to Enterprise before it was closed. In all the chaos, there was no prior notice that the fire we were being evacuated for had engulfed the road south to safety. Caught in the middle, with vehicles in front and behind us, we maneuvered for over ten long minutes through blinding smoke, exploding trees and fiery brush while towing our trailer filled with the warmers Aurora Heat artisans made over the past five months.
The neighboring hamlet of Enterprise, population 350, was decimated minutes after we passed by that same voracious fire. Racing in from the northeast, 50 km in four hours, that fire left only a few homes and businesses standing. So very sorry for the community and their catastrophic losses, devastating.
In all this, I am grateful to my son—his calm, focused and perceptive driving skills kept us on the winding highway and got us through the fires unharmed. His tactic, should you ever need it, was to look down on his driver's side window, following closely the left white line when it came visible. The Order to leave Hay River, the uncertainty and fear leaving with the fire so close is a trauma that may stay with me for a long time.
As I ponder what has led up to this, many questions come to mind. The far reaching query: what mass shifts can take place to reverse the environmental harm being inflicted on this planet and what is the part we are to play?
Returning Home to Fort Smith
It took a couple of days of staying with friends along the way until we landed as guests on an acreage near Wetaskiwin, just south of Edmonton. The time went by slowly and we kept in touch with friends, family and staff alongside daily updates of news from home. We were very grateful and when finally given the go ahead, my husband packed us up and we retraced the 1400 km north.
After 41 days of evacuation, we have finally returned home, and are keenly aware of the hardships and losses endured by our fellow community members. Governments and organizations like the Red Cross and Alberta Virtual Care Clinic, rallied to offer connections for food, housing and healthcare.The upheaval and mental health challenges were widespread as we all became “climate refugees.”
Municipal leadership had cautioned us to brace for changes along the way. As we drove, we could see some of the landscape had transformed, with portions of the highway scorched.
When we drove past Enterprise and the Hay River Reserve, K’atlodeechee, again I felt the pain of loss for so many whose homes and businesses burned to the ground. Quietly, we traveled through the area estimating where we had drove through the fire. Clearly, it had burned hot with the trees now thin sticks and the Land blackened and charred.
We continued along to the turn off and the highway that takes us to the end of the road to Fort Smith. With new eyes, I noticed the previous fires of years gone by, all in their various stages of regrowth.
Two and a half hours later we arrived at the outskirts of Fort Smith, now with wide firebreaks on three sides. Where we were once surrounded by thick forest, select areas were now cleared, a changed landscape. The town had been spared, I believe the spirit of Slave River was helping to protect our community.
Through it all, we remain grateful – grateful for the locals, the brave men and women who defended our town, often to the point of exhaustion. Grateful for the tireless crews from across Canada and far away places like the US, South Africa, and New Zealand. At one point, there were over 400 men and women actioning the fires with the support of helicopters, water bombers, heavy equipment, and relentless work with boots on the ground.
Tsa–The Beaver, The World Builder
In the midst of all this turmoil, my thoughts were also with the beavers, how will they cope with the aftermath? I turned to the Elder trappers of our community, the ones that know the Land like the back of their hands. They tell me, likely a few beavers will have met an early end and most will face challenges in adapting to the changes in their habitat. Food will be more scarce this year, especially for the younger ones but being a water animal, they will fare better than most.
The resilient beavers will play a big regenerative role as they continue to build dams and create wetlands that countless other animal species rely on. Next year, with new litters, the beaver population will rebound. They are found all across Canada, primarily in the boreal forest, stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland. We pledge to continue advocacy for research and awareness of beaver population health, in reciprocity and for our interconnection with tsa.
Aurora Heat remains steadfast in respectful relationship with tsa. Most of our pelts for the upcoming seasons are procured in the spring. We will continue to promote wild fur harvesting throughout the boreal forest, recognizing its cultural, economic, and ecological value to Northern Indigenous communities. The harvesters in our area, as guardians, will adjust practices this coming winter and spring.
Overcoming Challenge, We Continue On
These extreme wildfires in our part of the world are an alarming reminder of the Climate Crisis and its far reach. Like all of us, I do not have answers. Personally, I consciously think about and act to reduce the footprint of my family and my business. I find myself researching and studying about climate change. I do know this much, we must all recognize our role in this global challenge and adopt Seven Generations Forward principles to ensure the wellbeing of all life on this planet.
With adversity comes resilience, we are determined as we embark on our 8th season. We take pride in offering our warmers as an alternative to disposable ones, connecting people with a gift from Nature. Our goal for this year is simple – to make it our best year yet. This would not be possible without those who have stood by us over the years.
Your support is appreciated in the form of prayers and good thoughts for the positive change in weather, the continued safety of fire crews and personnel working to keep our communities safe. We remain on evacuation Alert in this third week of September. May the rains pour down and put an end to wildfires across this country.
As always, please feel welcomed to reach out if you have any questions or thoughts you'd like to share. I always look forward to making connections.
Marci cho ~ thank you & tThá Huná ~ may you live a long time.
President & Founder
Aurora Heat, Inc.