Town of Hay River, N.W.T., releases plans for structured return for wildfire evacuees

HAY RIVER, N.W.T. — It will likely be next week before wildfire evacuees from Hay River, N.W.T., learn when they can return home.

While re-entry for the territorial capital of Yellowknife began Wednesday, thousands of people from Hay River, on the south shore of Great Slave Lake, and Fort Smith, on the Alberta boundary, haven't been allowed back.

Hay River council approved its re-entry plan Friday, but a return date won't be determined until after the weekend, which is forecast to be hot and dry.

A notice on the Town of Hay River Facebook page said the evacuation order would only be lifted when town council, in consultation with the community's emergency co-ordinator, wildfire incident commander and other authorities, determine it is safe to return.

Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson said if all goes well, residents could be home within the next 10 days.

"Fingers crossed, if all goes well, but again none of us have a crystal ball," Jameson said at a news briefing.

"We do not want to bring people back if there is a safety concern. I'm hoping that a week to 10 days is reasonable if we feel safe and those involved agree ... if we can get through this weekend."

There are several caveats for re-entry, since the wildfire is expected to remain active throughout the fall and unknown weather conditions can affect its severity.

Workers in essential services will be the first allowed back to support continued management of the wildfire and to help reopen the community.

Residents who live in areas that haven't been affected by the fire will be the next group allowed in, while those who live in areas that have seen fire damage and have suffered a loss of essential utilities will have to wait longer.

Residents with special health needs — including those in long-term care and assisted living, or who need treatment for chronic illness — will have to stay away until community health services have fully resumed.

N.W.T. wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said this weekend will be the key.

"Since we got that little break in the weather, we have been making extraordinary progress throughout this," he said.

"But with the conditions that we do expect this weekend - warm, dry, windy, it is something that could some pressure on our defences. Ourselves and the town of Hay River ... are very focused on doing everything that's necessary for these defences to hold and help support a safe return for the future."

Firefighting staff and equipment will continue to operate, while monitoring and controlling the risk until the fire is under control.

The town also warned a further evacuation notice could be issued during re-entry if there is an active fire in the area.

An update from the town said drone flights have been providing information about hot spots and crews are working to make sure they are out.

Fire has reached many populated areas in Hay River and was recently about 500 metres away from the hospital.

An evacuation was ordered Aug. 13 for the town of 3,500 people.

Yellowknife's 20,000 residents were ordered out three days later. Fire came close, but did not enter the city.

Jameson said those returning to areas like the nearby hamlet of Enterprise or back to Hay River need to brace themselves.

"To drive through into this community is going to be very tough on a lot of people," Jameson said.

"The devastation is really unreal so I need people really need to prepare yourself when you come home because the whole landscape of our community has changed."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2023.

— By Bill Graveland in Calgary.

The Canadian Press