Hay River evacuates over wildfire, residents head for Yellowknife

Last modified: May 18, 2023 at 6:38pm

Hay River residents have been ordered to evacuate after a wildfire jumped the river from the Kátł’odeeche First Nation late on Sunday evening.

The entire town and the First Nation are under an evacuation order as of 11pm on Sunday. A rapidly growing wildfire had been blown in the direction of the town throughout the evening.

“The Town of Hay River is issuing an evacuation order for all of Hay River. The host community is Yellowknife,” read a short message on the town’s Facebook page. A territorial alert confirmed the instruction to leave.


“Those who require transportation can go to the Hay River Community Centre,” the town wrote.

Yellowknife’s multiplex, which served as an evacuation centre during last year’s devastating Hay River flood, is understood to be the designated shelter location for evacuees from this year’s fire.

Together, Sunday’s evacuation orders affect some 4,000 people.

“The fire is out of control on Kátł’odeeche First Nation. The fire has jumped the river,” Chief April Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation had said in a Facebook live video shortly before 11pm.

“It is now on the Hay River side by the airport.”


Martel said in a subsequent video: “We are all heading to Yellowknife. If there are any members in Enterprise, please stay there until we meet you.”

She said buses were coming to pick up anyone without transport of their own.

Martel also said Northland Utilities was shutting down power to the First Nation, whose residents had been told to leave earlier in the afternoon. Propane systems in both Hay River and KFN have been shut down as a precaution.

More: Kátł’odeeche First Nation evacuated over wildfire


More: Timeline, photos and video: KFN and Hay River wildfire

More: Yellowknife prepares to welcome hundreds of wildfire evacuees

Fort Providence’s Big River gas station, a common refuelling location between Hay River and Yellowknife, said it was open for evacuees heading north, as was the community’s campground. Gateway Gas is also open in Enterprise, as is its motel. The Deninu Kue First Nation, in Fort Resolution, offered assistance and accommodation, and the Town of Hay River said up to 40 camping spots are available near Kakisa.

In Hay River, a popular Facebook group began to feature urgent requests from residents needing help reaching friends and relatives or finding care for pets.

Crews will ‘do whatever is possible’

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Climate Change, confirmed the fire had jumped the Hay River and said residents had reported that the fire may be burning on Vale Island, near the graveyard.

Jumping the river was likely “caused by embers being carried by the easterly winds that hit the fire in the evening,” Westwick told Cabin Radio.

“We’ll be assessing the situation a lot more over the coming hours,” he said.

“This is obviously a rapidly evolving situation and there are many details we don’t quite know yet. We’ll be looking at strategies and tactics to do whatever is possible to protect the communities.”

By 9pm on Sunday, crews fighting the wildfire on the First Nation’s side of the river had been forced to withdraw. A change in wind direction drove the fire, which grew from nothing to well over 65 hectares throughout the day, toward the First Nation and ultimately across to Hay River.

Four crews supported by aircraft and heavy equipment had “made progress” reducing the fire’s intensity and working to protect the community, the GNWT said shortly before 9pm, but “due to unsafe conditions – low-lying smoke causing limited visibility – teams are having difficulty accessing the fire and have had to pull back for now.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada, the federal agency, issued an air quality advisory for the Hay River region over smoke from the wildfire.

The territorial government says scattered showers forecast over the next two days may bring “limited relief” to the region. However, the forecast more generally calls for a continuation of the truly extraordinary heat that has enveloped most of the NWT from Norman Wells down for the entirety of May so far.

Wildfire season in the territory has begun a full month earlier than is normally the case, and temperature records in various communities have been broken.

However, until Sunday the NWT had escaped the fate of northern Alberta, where huge fires had already triggered the evacuation of multiple communities.

Megan Miskiman contributed reporting.