In the N.W.T., an approaching wildfire season is fuelling anxiety

'The community, the whole village and the whole Northwest Territories is just recovering from it'

As early signs of the wildfire season in Alberta suggest another difficult summer for N.W.T. residents, many are experiencing a growing phenomenon called climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety.

Fort Smith Coun. Mike Couvrette remembers last year's first wildfire of the season near Fort Smith, which heralded a summer of heat, drought, smoke and evacuations.

SEE ALSO:Eco-anxiety is on the rise, here's what psychologists recommend

"We experienced our first wildfire and it was only six kilometres from where I live, 16 kilometres from the downtown area of Fort Smith," Couvrette said.

"It turned out to be a couple of acres that ended up burning and just, 'Wow, what's happening? This doesn't happen this early in the season,' was the reaction of the entire community and I think that was an early wake up call for us that we need it to be prepared for the unusual."

Week after week, more fires started and spread, many of them racing toward communities. Then, in August, a wildfire consumed Enterprise and the highway out of the N.W.T.

Couvrette and his wife Helena were on that highway when the flames came, along with their dogs and their alpacas. Tragedy struck when their trailer caught fire.

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Mike Couvrette/Julie Plourde/CBC

Mike Couvrette, who lost his alpacas in last summer's wildfires, says people in some South Slave communities are anxious about what the upcoming season holds. (Julie Plourde/CBC)

"We lost our livestock, the guardian dogs that we rely on to look after them, our pets as well," Couvrette said.

He said many people in Hay River are still uneasy about the upcoming wildfire season.

"In general, I think people are still somewhat anxious," he added.

'States of shock'

Robert Selles is a psychologist who works with Anxiety Canada and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Selles said natural disasters, like forest fires, seem threatening because they're unpredictable and can cause harm.

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"They can put us in states of shock. They can leave us feeling worried and afraid, sort of grieving and angry," he said.

With the end of winter approaching and dry weather around the corner, Selles said it's normal to feel anxiety and fear right now.

"There is certainly some realistic reasons to feel all of those things. And those feelings are a natural sort of response from our body and our minds intending to protect us," he said.

Geneviève Côté, who has lived in Fort Smith for 18 years, is one of many already feeling anxious.

Submitted by Geneviève Côté via CBC

Geneviève Côté says she's already making plans to spend this summer elsewhere. (Submitted by Geneviève Côté)

"I follow it closely every summer, to know what's happening around us [...] From one summer to the next, we can find ourselves with really extreme conditions," said Côté, who has a four-year-old.

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Last summer, she left her community two weeks before the evacuation order was made. She said she's already making plans to spend this summer elsewhere too.

"Mentally, I'm ready to leave when it's time," she said.

"It created anxiety, that's for sure." Côté said of the fires. "The community, the whole village and the whole Northwest Territories is just recovering from it, and we're going into another season, so people are on edge."

For Selles, the feelings of wanting to stay vigilant that come with anxiety are normal, but they could also cause problems.

"They maybe make us feel better for a moment because we feel like we're preparing, but ultimately take us away from caring for ourselves," Selles said.

Côté said her partner often feels like she worries over nothing. But staying informed and prepared helps with her emotions, she said.

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"I need to do this because it helps me feel ready … It's hard to live like that, but it's important for me to have a plan."

Letting go

Hay River has experienced many environmental disasters in the last two years. In 2022, record flooding swallowed several parts of the downtown area as well as areas of Paradise Gardens just south of the town. Early last summer, homes on the neighbouring Kátł'odeeche reserve burned, and as the fire situation grew worse, so did homes in Paradise Gardens.

Alex McMeekin/Julie Plourde/CBC

Hay River resident Alex McMeekin lived through the floods of 2022 and the wildfires of 2023. He says he tries not to spend time worrying about weather events he can't control. (Julie Plourde/CBC)

At Paradise Gardens, Alex McMeekin has every reason to feel anxious, even as nicer weather approaches. What was left of his business, Riverside Growers, after the flood, was then destroyed by fires.

Despite this, the father of two young children tries to stay calm.

"I think it's easy to slip into anxiety, but it doesn't do us any good. You know, it's something that's out of our control," McMeekin said.

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Selles thinks that's a good approach to manage stress.

"With wildfires, it might be getting really stuck thinking about when exactly is it going to happen, what's going to be affected and and things like that. And if we spend all our time and energy on those worries, we may not be doing the things that actually build us up or help move us forward," Selles said.

Get help if needed

Selles said people grappling with difficult feelings should take the time to identify and name those feelings. Preparing for emergencies with an emergency plan can also help.

That's the same message N.W.T. Fire wants to send to the community.

"Something that we're working to do is to continually engage folks to channel that anxiety towards doing productive things. In the meantime, steps like taking fire smart actions at their cabins, homes, businesses and the like," said fire information officer Mike Westwick.

Selles also recommends consulting a health professional if necessary.

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Rebecca Alty/Julie Plourde/CBC

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty says when she starts feeling anxious, she focuses on the things she can control. (Julie Plourde/CBC)

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty did just that after the city was evacuated last summer.

Alty led a team for weeks as a wildfire threatened Yellowknife. Before, during and after the city's evacuation, she said she felt the stress of the community weighing on her.

"I recognized that I was burnt out but I had to continue to work. It wasn't like, well you know what, I'm just going to take a couple months off to try to recover," she said.

Alty said she did things like walk and paint as much as possible.

She said she also believes it's best if people focus their energy on things that they can control, and find activities that bring them joy and comfort.

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"I know this summer, you know, hearing about Alberta already, that the anxiety level could be high again for people," she said.

"I'm really focusing on what I can control, recognizing that I won't know mother nature's plan until till after the fact."

Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub to keep up with the latest on the 2024 wildfire season across Canada.

WATCH: Early wildfire season declared in Alberta, here's what that means

Thumbnail courtesy of Alex McMeekin via CBC.

The story was originally written by and published for CBC News. It contains files from Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada, translated by Emma Tranter.