As communities across the Northwest Territories prepare to receive more returning residents, officials are cautioning that many of the wildfires which spurred evacuations in the first place are still active – something that may not change until regions get snow.
“I would like to prepare evacuees for what they expect to come home to,” Shane Thompson, minister of environment and climate change for the territory, said in a media update Thursday. “No return to any community will be without risk.”
The fire near the communities of Hay River and K’átł’odeeche First Nation is still active, but the work of fire crews in maintaining the situation has officials hopeful that the general public could be able to start coming back this weekend.
“We will need to adapt to living with fire,” he said. “It’s very likely these fires will need to be managed till snowfall.”
After weeks of battling flames and extending evacuation orders, some positive signs are showing for the Northwest Territories.
There are currently 118 fires active in the territory, down from more than 240 fires this time last week. Last week, residents of Yellowknife were able to start returning to the city for the first time in three weeks, and phased re-entry plans have seen essential workers return to some other communities, including Hay River, which began welcoming them on Wednesday.
So far, more than 2,000 people have returned to the Northwest Territories by plane, while more than 650 vehicles have been logged travelling northbound into the territory, officials say.
But it’s still up in the air when evacuation orders for some regions may be lifted, including the one affecting Fort Smith, a town which has lost a significant number of buildings in the blaze.
“This week, we’ve seen things begin to return to normal in many recently evacuated communities,” Premier Caroline Cochrane said in the media update.
“We must remember that while this is good news for many, others will not be able to return to their homes, their business, their workplace, because of the destruction caused by these fires.”
The deadline for evacuated residents to register for flights back to the territory has been extended until 10 p.m. MDT on Thursday, and officials say residents can visit the government’s website or call at 1-888-383-6649 to pre-register for a spot on an airplane back. The website has been periodically experiencing disruptions, so those struggling to open it should use the number to call, officials said.
Around 700 people have pre-registered for their flights so far as of the media update. Pre-registering allows officials to figure out how many flights they will need. Calls will start going out on Friday to those who have pre-registered with more details about their flight.
HAY RIVER REGION
Fire crews are still battling the fire in this region, and “continuing to see hot, dry conditions,” according to Mike Westwick, wildfire information officer.
They haven’t received the rain that was forecasted this week, he said, but despite these challenges, they’ve ensured that the fire didn’t progress towards any key landmarks on the west side of the river.
“Our defences across the Hay River corridor have held,” he said.
Essential personnel began to return on Wednesday, and Westwick cautioned that those returning should be aware that they will still be able to see evidence of fire fighting and crews working.
“You can expect to see significant fire activity on the east side of the river,” he said.
“You may see large plumes of smoke, you may come across ash while you’re travelling.”
This does not mean that it isn’t safe to return by the routes officials have indicated, he said, but it may be distressing to observe. They are expecting to see “very strong winds” on Friday, he added, which could spur the wildfires on.
Essential workers are setting up the services that will be needed for residents to return, such as healthcare services.
“Our community remains under an evacuation order during the establishment of these services as some fire risk remains,” Mayor Kandis Jameson said in the media update.
She added that council will meet tomorrow to assess the situation and see if it is safe to proceed with the next phase of returning residents.
“We hope to see our general public return this weekend,” she said.
April Martel, chief of Kátł’odeeche First Nation, said in the news conference that they’ve been working on their re-entry plan and have been communicating regularly with ECC officials.
Significant damage has been done in the areas of Patterson Road, Paradise Gardens and the nearby hamlet of Enterprise.
Michael St. Amour, mayor of Enterprise, said in Thursday’s update that crews are working on re-establishing the power grid and properties are being assessed.
“Hopefully we can have our people come home soon,” he said.
He added that they’re still seeing hotspots “basically all around the community,” and that officials will be looking at their return plan on Friday to see what is feasible.
“Most of our structures are destroyed, so it’s going to be a little bit tricky,” he said, adding that they’re considering interim housing or local hotels, but that nothing is settled yet.
FORT SMITH REGION
“The situation in Fort Smith remains very similar to how it was a week ago,” Deputy Mayor Jay MacDonald said Thursday, adding that while fire behaviour has “diminished” over the past week, the area is still unsafe for the general population.
”There are areas of the fire that are still actively burning and undergoing suppression activities,” he said.
Essential workers began to re-enter the region on Tuesday, but services will still be limited for a while. Macdonald said that the state of emergency has been extended until Sept. 21, clarifying that this is not the same as the evacuation order, which will remain in place until it’s deemed safe enough to lift it.
He said that residents should be aware that it won’t be just business as usual even when they are able to come back. There may be regions blocked off for residents’ safety, or new speed restrictions in place.
“Residents with underlying health conditions should be aware that the amount of smoke can be high,” he said.
There are brisk southerly winds predicted for this weekend which could whip up fires more, he said.
Although more and more people are slowly being able to return home, it may be a harrowing process for some in regions that have seen a lot of damage, Westwick cautioned.
“I want to acknowledge that what you’re returning to may be tough to see,” he said. “For many, cherished areas for hunting, fishing, harvesting and playing have been hit by fire, and this is going to be a trauma that a lot of people face together.”
He noted that there may be continuing hazards even in regions with less fire activity, such as trees falling easier than they used to.
“All of these fires will need to be managed till snowfalls. You’re not returning to a fire free community,” he said.
Those in the Northwest Territories are now “living with fire,” he said, “in a much more intimate way than we’re used to in the boreal forest.”
Caroline Wawzonek, finance minister for the territory, said Thursday that this unprecedented wildfire season was not something they anticipated when building the budget for this year.
“(The) costs of the response were not built into the budget at that time,” she said, adding that although the fiscal outlook remains “stable in the longer term,” there are going to be serious challenges.
“The wildfire season has had tremendous impact on every aspect of our economy.”
She said that the federal government has been working with them to provide support in a timely fashion, and that the territory is working on developing more programs to help business owners who have lost weeks of profit.
Cochrane said that the territory’s government will be engaging an independent contractor to run a review of the government’s response to the wildfire crisis in order to see where improvements can be made.
Source : CTV