Gord Gin has been at his lodge on the shores of Lake Duncan in the Northwest Territories since June.
At first, it was to prepare for the arrival of guests. As with most tour operators, Gin’s Yellow Dog Lodge struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic; He said they hoped this would be their “recovery year.”
“In both winter and summer we receive a record number of reservations,” he said.
But at the beginning of the tourist season, that optimism faded.
As wildfires raged across the land, the Yellow Dog Lodge was soon at risk. In July, a fire north of Ingraham Trail threatened to burn down the lodge at Duncan Lake, which is about 50 kilometers northeast of Yellowknife.
Fortunately, the lodge was saved after a successful burning operation to protect the property. Fire crews then turned it into a base of operations.
That’s actually when the most damage occurred: Gin said one of the NWT firefighters accidentally set his fish smoker on fire.
“That almost killed the shelter,” he said. “I got angry and the incident commander flew out to talk to me about the incident, and we sat down and talked about training and respect.”
Gin said it was one of the few incidents where local fire crews “weren’t very respectful.”
Finally he asked that they be removed.
“After that, they brought in some pretty good people from other parts of Canada and we had no problems,” Gin said.
Mike Westwick, NWT fire information officer, said his agency was aware of “an incident involving a cooking appliance that was accidentally damaged” and had agreed to replace it.
“First and foremost, we deeply appreciate the support Yellow Dog Lodge provided to firefighting operations in the area,” Westwick said.
He said no other questions were raised about the crew’s behavior.
“The highest level of conduct is expected from our teams and when concerns arise we use the appropriate tools within the employment contract to correct the behaviour,” he said.
Equipment was installed at the shelter until September 1.
Backburn saves the property
Aside from the fish smoker scare, Gin says there has been minimal property damage.
He blames it on his back, although it was too close for comfort.
With fire retardants in place and sprinkler systems installed, Gin said crews “set the entire hillside on fire, which is only about 30 meters from the lodge.”
He added that it was a “very scary and very sad” experience, but the crew that did the burning was “excellent” and he appreciates the efforts to save the property.
That includes a memorial to his nephew, who died when he was 14.
“That really made my heart feel good when they did everything in their power to save what was valuable to us,” he said.
Westwick said four structures burned as a result of the ZF 011 and ZF 012 fires, north of Ingraham Trail.
Now, Gin says the lack of physical property damage is actually working against him.
Overall, he estimates the shelter has lost about $180,000 in revenue this summer due to the wildfires and evacuations.
Despite having business interruption insurance, Gin said his insurer’s response has been “disheartening.”
“They told me… that I would have had to lose some property and some assets here before the insurance took effect, which to me was ridiculous because of the smoke and transportation disruption, plus the wildfire was just around the corner.” 30 meters away,” he said.
“There’s no one in their right mind who would have hosted a guest, just for safety reasons, and the insurance company has objected a little.”
The fire has left scars on the landscape; Gin says he burned down a picnic area and several trails need to be cleared again.
“So there is a loss, maybe not a physical loss to the property as such, but there is a loss because we can’t do a lot of the activities that we used to do,” he said.
“A season like this really has to weigh on my mind”
Gin and his wife, Kathy, have owned the lodge since 2005.
“It’s been one of the toughest seasons I’ve ever participated in,” he said.
Constantly knowing that there was a fire at their front door led to high staff turnover. Gin says he’s on his fourth chef of the season.
“They were either physically exhausted or emotionally shaken by the proximity of the wildfire,” he said.
Gin says the shelter is back to full operation, albeit with limited staff. Guests began arriving the same day Yellowknife reopened to residents after evacuation.
But he’s not sure about the long-term effects of the wildfire season.
“I’ve already gotten a lot of calls from people who want to cancel because they just feel uncomfortable because the Northwest Territory is not a safe place,” she said.
At 65 years old, the whole experience also makes Gin wonder how long he can keep the shelter open.
Despite the losses, he says the shelter is in good financial health.
“A season like this really has to weigh on my mind and has made me rethink if I wanted to keep doing this for longer… it’s more of a mental and preparation thing.”