Original Published on Oct 19, 2022 at 20:38
By Chloe Williams, Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Fellow, and Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation says the Northwest Territories’ Scotty Creek research station has been “almost completely destroyed” by a forest fire.
Located 50 kilometres south of Fort Simpson, Scotty Creek is one of the first Indigenous-led research stations in the world. It’s also one of the few long-term research stations in the North.
Organizations from around the world, including the IPCC, use data collected at the site to try to understand the progress of climate change in one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth.
In a press release, the First Nation reported that five of Scotty Creek’s nine buildings, which include facilities used as laboratory space, sleeping accommodations and the storage of research equipment, burned to the ground. The rest of the buildings have been damaged to varying extents, the First Nation stated, and some will need to be replaced.
Many storage containers that housed scientific equipment and tools were reportedly destroyed, as were support structures, platforms and solar arrays.
“It was a gut punch,” said Dieter Cazon, lands and resources coordinator for LKFN, referring to his reaction when he saw photos of the damage taken by two Scotty Creek team members. Areas where infrastructure once stood were “completely burned to ash, right to the ground,” he said.
When the wildfire first threatened the research station in September, fire crews removed vegetation near buildings and set up sprinklers to soak the area in an attempt to protect the facility.
These measures fell short, according to LKFN.
“ENR failed to attack the fire even though it was close to the site,” the First Nation wrote, referring to the territorial Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which oversees wildfire response in the N.W.T.
“Weeks ago, it removed a sprinkler protection system, fearing it might be damaged by pending frost, while knowing the fire was active.”
Fighting fire during freeze-up
Mike Westwick, an N.W.T. government wildfire information officer, said by email that “fighting fires isn’t as simple as turning on a hose and spraying. There are so many challenges in between – the most important of which is protecting human life.”
He wrote: “The unfortunate reality is that with the extreme winds we’ve seen in the area, it was simply unsafe to attack the fire directly.”
According to Westwick, sprinklers were pulled off the site last Thursday. Westwick said that action was taken not because of potential frost damage, but because the equipment froze, rendering it ineffective.
“This is simply a sign of the extraordinary season we’re seeing,” he wrote. “When we’re fighting fires and protecting structures, it is highly unusual for there to be the threat of freezing temperatures.”
Cazon, too, acknowledged that conditions this year have been “unprecedented.” He said he hopes ENR will be more prepared for extreme weather events in future.
“We’re having 30-degree weather in May. There’s no snow on the ground in mid-October, never mind how dry this fall has been,” said Cazon. “You have to adapt to the ongoing evolution of climate change and how it’s affecting everybody around us. This is the reality we have to start facing.”
After the equipment was removed, Westwick said, extreme winds caused the fire to spread.
“We really do feel for everyone affected by the losses at Scotty Creek,“ he wrote. “The setback is going to hurt and its importance is not lost on us.”
Impacts across the Dehcho and beyond
The damage comes after a historic year in which Scotty Creek become a fully Indigenous-led research station, embracing a collaborative partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University.
“I’m just kind-of lost for words,” said Ashley Menicoche, regional coordinator for the Dehcho’s Edéhzhíe protected area. “I actually have one of my guardians, William Alger, out there today assisting with gathering up the materials that burnt.”
Menicoche says Alger helped to build a strong working relationship between Edéhzhíe and Scotty Creek, two of the most influential Indigenous-led organizations in the Dehcho. Both are developing a national reputation as models for Indigenous sovereignty.
“He was so proud,” said Menicoche. “For him to hear this news… I know it didn’t only affect him, it affected so many. It will be a ripple effect.”
For the nearby community of Fort Simpson, the loss will also be financial.
The research station made the area a thoroughfare for national and international visitors and had become a centre for community engagement and education.
“Our hotels, bed and breakfasts, charter airlines will take the biggest hit,” said Chief Kele Antoine of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation.
“Important climate change research, youth education, and the economic activities that are part of keeping it going will now be temporarily halted.”
In April, LKFN was working on compiling all data from the area into a compendium of knowledge for future generations. While the future of research at Scotty Creek is still unclear, Cazon says work from the past year – and the rest of the information gathered over the years – is secure.
“Most field data would have been collected and secured on servers, and the other data would have already been archived,” said Cazon.
“Alger and staff at Scotty Creek had gone into the field to shut down the camp and download all the data. They had gathered everything from this past season’s work, and they had the area shut down for freeze-up.”
A loss for climate science
The impact of the damage will also be felt in the research community.
Scotty Creek has been in place since the 1990s. It also happens to be situated near the southern edge of permafrost, Scotty Creek director Bill Quinton told Cabin Radio last month, when the fire first threatened. (Quinton was not available for comment before publication of this latest report.)
Quinton said the station was put in at a time when a lot of environmental changes were noted due to climate warming. Over the past quarter of a century, researchers have collected an invaluable data archive, he said.
Although it’s still unclear how monitoring equipment in the area has fared, the known damage is “going to be a hit,” Cazon said.
Data collected at Scotty Creek is shared globally. Researchers from at least six Canadian universities and institutions in the United States and Europe will be directly affected, LKFN reported.
The value of the losses is still being assessed, according to LKFN, but will be substantial. Last month, Quinton said the fire threatened equipment, infrastructure and research investments worth millions of dollars.
Two members of Scotty Creek’s team are currently assessing the damage, taking stock of what survived and what is salvageable, Cazon said, adding the First Nation will have to work out how to bounce back.
LKFN expects the research station to be closed for an extended period of time.
Menicoche, the Edéhzhíe coordinator, became emotional discussing the impact on the First Nation and beyond – but couldn’t help a wry smile at the irony.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate that it was a climate change research centre that burnt… and it was climate change that took it and burned it,” Menicoche said.