As Yellowknife city council is set to vote on whether to suspend fire service for properties outside of municipal boundaries during a meeting on Sept. 14, some long-time residents are contemplating what the full impacts might be.
At the Aug. 24 governance and priorities committee meeting, Yellowknife councillors agreed with a city recommendation to stop providing fire service outside of city boundaries – areas including Ingraham Trail – except for wildfires.
Officially, service from the city is expected to end in April 1, 2021.
NNSL Media reached out to several property owners, residents and businesses in the area. As of Thursday afternoon, only one individual was willing to go on the record.
Richard Zieba, who lives along the Ingraham Trail with his partner Linda Yonge, has resided in a leased cabin on Pontoon Lake since 1988. He said he was caught off guard by the city’s announcement.
“I was blindsided by it and there was no attempt to talk to folks about the implications before the city staff presented the proposal to council,” Zieba said. “We have been in discussion on the trail here because (as) there are more issues that emerge, and that have been emerging… a formal association would a good venue for us to deal with.”
The situation for residents like Zieba is that if there are structural fires, the city fire department is called and the municipality provides a charge for that service.
Based on the few times that the city is called upon every year, he says their reasoning for stopping fire service is poor.
“My understanding is that fire department has said that they respond to about one fire per year and the city has made the argument that taking resources away from the city means they can’t respond to fires within city boundaries,” Zieba said. “They have also stated that don’t have sufficient resources for two fires within a city that occur simultaneously. The argument is a bit weak in my mind.”
But the city counters that it must measure the level of risk that providing service outside the city presents.
“Every time we leave the city… we are removing that service from the city if a house catches on fire,” Mayor Rebecca Alty said. “It reduces service and so not all resources will be in town. Councillors… (were) not willing to take that risk. ”
Zieba says there needs to be a better solution and the city needs to take into consideration a number of factors including that some Ingraham Trail residents have primary homes in the city where they pay taxes.
In other instances, such as in his case, residents have lived along the Ingraham Trail for decades and have long supported local businesses.
“We spend money in Yellowknife, we have lived here for over 30 years and I have purchased hundreds of thousands worth of items from local business – like from building suppliers – that goes toward supporting their property taxes being spent,” said Zieba.
Property taxes outside of municipal boundaries go to the GNWT, not the city. Residents worry that if the city doesn’t provide fire service, they will lose their ability to obtain fire insurance in the future and, by extension, the ability to obtain a mortgage for properties.
“There is a great deal of concern about loss of property and the potential impact on insurance rates,” Zieba said. “While our insurance is higher because of the distance fire response has to travel, no fire response could have impact on insurance.”
Zieba added that he believes there’s still time for council to reverse its stance.
“They still have to vote in mid-September, so it is not over till it is over,” he said.
GNWT examining issue
The GNWT Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), stated in an email this week that officials are still looking into the issue and seeking additional information from the city about the fallout of the decision.
“MACA has only recently become aware of the City of Yellowknife proposed changes to fire services along the Ingraham Trail,” stated Jay Boast, media spokesperson with the department. “We are monitoring the ongoing discussions and have been in contact with city officials to gain an understanding of possible impacts to area residents.”
He added, however, that the GNWT department is not mandated to provide emergency fire response for structures as that responsibility falls under the jurisdiction of municipalities and local government. MACA does provide assistance with training, fire protection planning and support and annual operational and maintenance funding that can go toward emergency service.
In some cases, those services can extend beyond municipal boundaries.
Boast acknowledged that the provision of emergency service becomes more complicated in outlying areas.
“The issue of fire protection for residents in rural and remote areas relates to multiple GNWT mandates, communities and other stakeholders,” he stated. “The GNWT provide some legislated emergency services in response to wildland fires (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and Yellowknife Airport Safety and Security (Department of Infrastructure).”
The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) has several territorial parks on the trail including larger campgrounds, such as Prelude Lake and Reid Lake.
“ITI, is considering what the impacts of such a decision would be, but until we have an opportunity to address this with the city, (we) will not be commenting,” stated Drew Williams, media spokesperson with the department.
Williams said there are existing measures in place to address structure fires in territorial park facilities and to keep users safe. He added that there are fire sprayers in a trailer with a water tank in each NWT park and sprinkler systems are being installed at Prelude and Reid Lake campgrounds to protect structures like the gatehouses.