Kátł’odeeche First Nation evacuated over wildfire

A wildfire near the Kátł’odeeche First Nation on May 14, 2023 is seen in a photo submitted by Wally Schumann
A wildfire near the Kátł’odeeche First Nation on May 14, 2023 is seen in a photo submitted by Wally Schumann.

The Kátł’odeeche First Nation is under an evacuation order after a wildfire grew significantly and threatened the community on Sunday, driven by strong winds.

An emergency alert at 4:30pm instructed residents of the South Slave community to head to neighbouring Hay River, where the town’s arena is being established as a centre for evacuees.

Chief April Martel said RCMP were touring her community with sirens on in a bid to ensure everyone leaves. The chief said a road block would be placed at the highway entrance to the First Nation’s reserve.

The NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change said a “suspected person-caused” wildfire had grown to 15 hectares in size and was within two kilometres of the reserve.



ECC said strong winds were causing “severe fire behaviour.” Those winds are currently pushing the fire and smoke away from KFN, the department added, but northern and easterly winds forecast later on Sunday are expected to “direct the fire and smoke towards the community.”

The Town of Hay River said in its own statement that ECC had advised the municipality there was “no current risk” to Hay River.

The town said its arena will “provide basic accommodation, health services and recreation to evacuees that are staying.”

In a relatively rare real-life deployment of its alert system, just days after testing it, the territory cut into cable TV and FM radio broadcasts multiple times on Sunday.



An initial message advised NWT residents in the vicinity to be ready to leave, followed by a second alert issuing the evacuation order.

Crews work to cut off fire

“We have multiple crews on the fire,” said ECC spokesperson Mike Westwick shortly before 5pm.

“We have aircraft, including several helicopters, and two dozers working to build a line around this fire to limit the spread as best we can. Air tankers will be arriving shortly after some mechanical issues.

“As of this afternoon, the fire was not growing particularly quickly, but we are very concerned that that may change later in the day.”

Westwick said the department’s initial assessment of the fire suggests that it may have been caused by sparks from a vehicle, though that remains to be confirmed.

“This should really serve as a wake-up call for folks. We’re very early in the season right now. We’ve seen multiple fires caused by people,” Westwick told Cabin Radio.

“There are going to be lightning-caused fires, that is a certainty. Human-caused fires are entirely avoidable and we just cannot afford to have them.

“We’re not even midway through May right now and we’re already facing these kinds of challenges.”



Separately, video posted to Facebook on Sunday appeared to show a building on fire at or near Fort Smith’s Joseph B Tyrrell Elementary School. There was no immediate update regarding that fire, its cause or any injuries.

Temperatures in the South Slave sat at around 24C on Sunday afternoon, more than double the local average high for this time of year of 11C. Gusting winds of 40 km/h were forecast in Hay River. Some rain showers are expected in the region on Monday.

The Northwest Territories had so far been spared the fate of northern Alberta, where huge wildfires have forced residents of various communities to leave their homes.

Wildfire season in the NWT is operating about a month ahead of its usual schedule, driven in part by an extraordinary stretch of unbroken, phenomenal heat.

Westwick said crews were actively monitoring as much of the territory as they could for new fires after what he termed a “significant amount of lightning” over the past two days.

The territory’s largest fire is 18 km south of Highway 1 between Kakisa and Sambaa K’e. That fire is more than 1,000 hectares in size, but is currently far from any community and posing no threat.

Given the conditions, Westwick said crews would be monitoring the likes of that fire “very closely” in case the situation changes.