Diamond Companies Support Employees as Canadian Wildfires Rage

SourcingAug 22, 2023

Diamond Companies Support Employees as Canadian Wildfires Rage

Rio Tinto, De Beers and Burgundy all have mines in the Northwest Territories, where wildfires have forced mass evacuations.

Wildfires Canada’s Northwest Territories
An aerial view of one of the wildfires currently burning near Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’ capital city and the largest city near the territory’s three diamond mines, was evacuated late last week. (Photo courtesy of the NWT Fire Facebook page)
Yellowknife, Canada—Diamond miners and manufacturers in Canada are working to aid employees and adjust operations as “unprecedented” wildfires continue to burn across the Northwest Territories, forcing thousands to evacuate.   

Yellowknife, the capital of the territory, has a population of about 20,000 and sits on the northern shore of the Great Slave Lake.

Benjamin King, CEO of Diamonds De Canada, a boutique diamond manufacturing firm in Yellowknife, said in a telephone interview Monday that fire is closing in on the city from the west, east and north.

While wildfires happen every year in the Northwest Territories, this year, weather has exacerbated the spread of the blazes.

“This year has been an incredibly dry season for the north, low humidity,” King explained. “Generally speaking, throughout the summer you get a lot of rain on and off and there hasn’t been that. This has been a trend for the past couple years; it’s been a lot drier in the summer.

“This is the first time I think anybody can remember that Yellowknife has been threatened by a fire.”

Residents were ordered to evacuate late last week and King, who splits his time between Yellowknife and the United States, said they complied, except for those who are aiding in the firefighting efforts.

Diamonds De Canada’s facility is closed, as is mining company Rio Tinto’s office in Yellowknife.

Rio Tinto is the sole owner of the Diavik mine, one of three major diamond mines in the Northwest Territories.

A Rio Tinto spokesperson told National Jeweler via email over the weekend that the office will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future.

The mine, which is located about 186 miles northeast of Yellowknife, is not directly threatened by the fire.

Operations are able to continue safely, albeit at a reduced capacity as Rio Tinto works to support and give flexibility to employees who have been evacuated or need to be near their homes or with their families. 

The company added, “Rio Tinto has reached out to the government of the Northwest Territories and the City of Yellowknife to offer assistance and is in discussions about the best way we can assist in terms of supplies, equipment or personnel.”

De Beers, which operates the Gahcho Kué mine in partnership with Mountain Province Diamonds, said in a statement last week that while the mine is not directly threatened, the Northwest Territories is home to more than 200 De Beers employees.

Many of them live in communities impacted by the fire; about 30 percent of Gahcho Kué’s workers reside in Yellowknife.

Like Rio Tinto, De Beers said it is working with employees who’ve been affected by evacuations to allow them to be with their families.

It has evacuated employees from its Yellowknife office while operations at Gahcho Kué and ongoing closure activities at De Beers’ inactive mine in the territory, Snap Lake, continue.

The company also said it has donated a total of $70,000 to the United Way NWT Emergency Response Fund to support wildlife relief and is considering how else it can help residents of the area. 

 Related stories will be right here … 

“Our hearts go out to everyone who has been forced from their homes and who have lost their homes and businesses during this unprecedented wildfire season,” said Erik Madsen, the corporate affairs lead for De Beers Group Managed Operations (Canada).

“We are also working closely with our more than 40 Gahcho Kué colleagues who have evacuated from Hay River, Fort Smith, Enterprise, and Jean Marie River.”

Burgundy Diamond Mines Ltd., which recently completed its purchase of the Ekati mine, also said while the mine is not currently threatened by the fires, it is aiding impacted employees. 

In a statement issued Monday, the company said several Burgundy employees who live in Yellowknife have relocated to cities in Alberta, while a couple of Ekati workers who have specialized emergency response skills are volunteering to help fight the fires. 

A majority of the Burgundy workforce flies into the mine from Calgary, Alberta, working a two-week shift then taking two weeks off.

To help those who used Yellowknife as a fly-in point but have had to evacuate, the company said it is allowing for flexible work arrangements and adding additional flights from Edmonton via Calgary that then go on to Ekati.

“Burgundy Diamond Mines remains committed to supporting its people who have been affected by the wildfires and will continue to monitor and provide updates on the wildfire situation,” the company said.

“We will continue to work with the government of the Northwest Territories to assist with wildfire response efforts and supporting those team members who live in evacuated regions.”

As of Monday afternoon, NWT Fire, the informational Facebook page maintained by the government of the Northwest Territories, said the Behchoko/Yellowknife Fire was about 15 km (9 miles) northwest of Yellowknife but was “highly unlikely” to reach the city’s outskirts in the next three days because it has been held at bay thanks to aerial support and rain. 

King said it is unknown at this point when people will be allowed to return to Yellowknife. It could be two to three weeks as the government of the Northwest Territories tends to be cautious, particularly since there is only one highway in and out of the city. 

He said Diamonds De Canada will resume filling orders as soon as it is able to reopen but customers should expect some delays. 

In the meantime, he wants the industry to know about the strength and resilience of the people of the Northwest Territories. 

“By nature, being from the North, you’re about as tough as a diamond,” King said. “Despite all the changes the world has thrown at us with climate, the one thing to know about the [people of the] north is, they adapt and they overcome all these difficulties.”
Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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