“We didn’t think anybody was going to come help us.”
Plummer guesses that the lodge his dad and grandfather built in 1950 is the oldest in the territory. Its rustic cabins can house up to 40 guests. The complex includes three buildings with backup generators and an airstrip that’s been slowly expanded to a point where it can accommodate 737 jets.
Chummy Plummer first guided in the area in 1955.
“That’s pretty well been my life. My dad and grandfather actually fished out there in 1938.”
When the guests left on Saturday, a handful of staff members stayed behind to look after four firefighters who’s joined them. The Northwest Territories government sent in water bombers, helicopters and crews to battle the fire.
Fortunately, geography and weather worked in the lodge’s favour. The property sits on the peninsula. The fire crews had arrived in time to catch a favourable wind — away from the lodge.
“They lit the backburn, which was very dramatic, but then that fire goes away from the lodge,” Plummer says.
"Dramatic" is an understatement. Photos of the operation, posted online by the N.W.T. government's environment and natural resources department, show an inferno towering over tiny buildings huddled by the lake.
‘Never anything like this’
With a lifetime in the territory, Plummer has seen fires before, but “never anything like this.”
“It’s a monstrous fire. When they first started this spring, you could just see little wee flare ups between Yellowknife and the Great Slave Lake Lodge,” he says.
“On June 18 — we were just calculating the date — we were flying into Yellowknife we could just see little bits of smoke. By the time we came back out of Yellowknife the next day, some of the fires were starting to really get going and it’s just continued ever since.”
Plummer says fire precautions are routine at all of his family’s fishing lodges. They always set up two water pumps just in case, and the air strips act as a fire break. But with a fire this size, he says there was nothing more they could have done.
Hearne Lake Lodge at risk
Hearne Lake Lodge is only 64 kilometres east of Yellowknife. As of yesterday, the flames were only 8 kilometres from the lodge.
Edie Doule, owner/operator of the lodge along with Ken Yoder, says an Alaskan fire crew had visited to help fireproof the lodge and install some sprinklers, but they’re still uneasy about what might happen.
“We already have emergency gear and equipment on an island out in the middle of the lake,” Doule says. “We have tubs of important documents, staples, a satellite phone and contact numbers and dog food at the ready to head out with our dogs and head for the island if we do have to leave the site.”
Yoder says communications with Environment and Natural Resources have been “scattered” so far, and he can understand.
“They’ve got their hands full and right now they don't deem this fire as being an immediate threat to us,” he says. “They've answered our questions when we've called, but when the wind calls up there's always that question: is it moving? We're a little bit shy on information in that respect.”
Trips to the lodge are now on hold until the situation is clearer, Yoder says.
“The next groups coming in are pretty much on hold until we find out what’s going on.”
That’s the case for Plummer’s too.
“We won’t be taking anybody back in there this summer until it’s under control,” Plummer says.
For now, Plummer’s is moving guests to its three lodges at Great Bear Lake, further north. He says it won’t inconvenience the guests, but the extra distance means more flights, more logistics and ultimately, more costs for the lodge.