Fire crews brace for storm and 'severe wind event' in N.W.T.'s South Slave

Heavy smoke has dampened the fire near Hay River, but it's also made it challenging for aircraft to fly in the area.  (Town of Hay River/Facebook - image credit)
Heavy smoke has dampened the fire near Hay River, but it's also made it challenging for aircraft to fly in the area. (Town of Hay River/Facebook - image credit)

Fire crews in Hay River and Fort Smith, N.W.T., are preparing for wildfires near those communities to flare up in the coming days due to strong winds in the South Slave region.

"The reality is we may see some challenging days here," Mike Westwick, a fire information officer, told CBC News Wednesday evening. "We may see growth towards communities, we may see significant fire activity, we may see a whole lot of smoke. We may see challenges to firefighters."

An evening update from N.W.T. Fire on the fire threatening Hay River said firefighting efforts are preparing for a "severe wind event" starting on Friday. Hot and dry conditions, paired with winds blowing from the south and the west and gusting up to 60 kilometres during the day Friday could cause the fire to grow significantly to the east, toward the community, it said.

"Crews have been preparing to minimize risks," the town of Hay River said in an update Wednesday morning. "Fire risk on the highway remains, specifically near the Alexandra Falls area through to the end of the wind events on Saturday."

The challenges could start as early as Thursday, however.

Thick smoke, which was helping to shade the fire Wednesday, could clear up Thursday afternoon, said N.W.T. Fire's update. There's also the potential for a thunderstorm that afternoon that could bring erratic and unpredictable winds, and slight rain that would "not enough to make a significant difference."

N.W.T. Fire said fire activity was low on Wednesday, because of higher moisture in the area, lower temperatures, and lower winds. Westwick said heavy smoke in the area may have helped generate some of that relief, but it also made it difficult for crews to fly. He said aircraft were grounded on Tuesday, but some were able to get into the air Wednesday.

"We'll be continuing to work in from where the fire got closest to extinguish fuel within that perimeter of that fire, to reduce risk and risk to the town," he'd said earlier in the day. "We're still a ways away from that. This is a highly active situation, but our teams are doing the right work on the ground to get that done."

A firefighter near a wildfire hotspot in Hay River.
A firefighter near a wildfire hotspot in Hay River.

A firefighter near a wildfire hotspot in Hay River. (Submitted by N.W.T. Fire)

The town's update says smoke and fog conditions also led to a collision on the highway near Enterprise on Tuesday. There were no injuries.

The update also stated that the town council has voted to waive interest fees on property taxes, water and sewer accounts, and general fees until Oct. 31. It will also delay utility bills until Oct. 1.

Drought levels unprecedented

While winds are not expected to be as strong near Fort Smith, officials there still say Friday and Saturday "may be challenging days."

"Those winds come from the southwest, that's what forecast," explained Westwick. "That could cause the fire to grow to the North and to the East, and obviously that's a place, that's nearby communities."

A Wednesday update from Fort Smith Protective Services (FSPS) said "fire personnel have spent the past two weeks creating containment lines, running high-volume sprinkler systems, equipping critical buildings with structure protection, removing trees and vegetation (fuel) between the fire's perimeter and communities."

The update also describes the unusually dry conditions firefighters are dealing with.

"In discussion with long-term residents, elders and fire specialists, no one has seen drought levels this high before," it reads.

"With no moisture in the ground, fire management tactics have had to change. Plants and vegetation that usually would be unlikely to burn and could be relied on as natural breaks in forest fuels that would aid in slowing a fire down are burning much faster than usual."

Officials in the town are also urging residents not to return.

Earlier this week, Yellowknife announced it was contacting essential staff to return to the city to prepare for residents.

"As some communities begin to return home we recognize that being away from our town is more stressful," reads the update from FSPS. "This evacuation has been prolonged and is affecting all of us.

"In order for fire operations to be successful, especially on challenging days, fire personnel must be focused on the main task at hand. People returning or remaining in the communities can impact fire operations and cause focus to be redirected to rescuing or ensuring non-incident personnel remain safe."

On Wednesday, RCMP said they received reports that a convoy of "up to 50 vehicles" was planning to drive back to Yellowknife, despite most highways being closed and the evacuation order still being in place for the city.

The N.W.T. government also extended the territory-wide state of emergency on Wednesday.