Fire crews withdraw from KFN again over danger, First Nation says

Last modified: May 15, 2023 at 2:28pm

The Kátł’odeeche First Nation says crews tackling a wildfire in the community have again been forced to withdraw because continuing to fight the fire is too dangerous.

Meanwhile, the territorial government closed Highway 2 from kilometre 32 until kilometre 49, at the junction of Highways 2 and 5, due to the wildfire smoke causing poor visibility. The closure came into effect at 1:30pm on Monday.

As of Monday morning, a wildfire that began on Sunday was reported to have damaged 15 of the First Nation’s buildings. Both KFN and Hay River have been evacuated.


Writing on Facebook shortly after 1pm, the First Nation said crews had pulled back – as they had been forced to do on Sunday evening – because conditions were “too dangerous and smokey.”

The First Nation said those involved were waiting for strong winds to die down.

The territorial government earlier said no damage had been reported in Hay River, though the town’s fire department had “extinguished spot fires which jumped the river.”

Asked which KFN buildings were damaged, Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change, said that information was not yet available.

“A more fulsome assessment will have to take place once the situation has stabilized,” he said.


Chief April Martel said on Facebook that dozer operators had been working on building a “huge fire guard.”

That fire guard is intended to extend from the Dene Wellness Centre to the Dene Cultural Institute, Martel said.

She said a school bus was leaving KFN at noon and would pick up passengers already in Enterprise and Fort Providence before taking them to Yellowknife’s evacuation centre.

Elders with their own vehicles can stay in Fort Providence’s hotel, while everyone else is asked to head to Yellowknife, Martel said.


“Check on your grandparents, your aunties, your uncles, your moms and your dads, just to check to them and see how they’re doing,” Martel said.

She said KFN wellness workers will be available in Yellowknife to help members with anything they need at the evacuation centre, which is located at the city’s multiplex.

KFN taking ‘major hit’

The GNWT said that as of 10:30am, the priority for firefighters is protecting structures in Hay River and Kátł’odeeche First Nation by installing the likes of sprinkler kits.

“We will also continue to attack the fire throughout the day,” Westwick said.

Strong eastern winds on Monday are expected to continue to push the fire, dubbed SS005, toward both communities. On Monday evening, winds are forecast to change to the west and northwest, helping push the direction of the fire away from Hay River and KFN.

However, the GNWT said a change in direction means the fire could increase in size and “tax firefighting efforts.”

Mayor of Hay River Kandis Jameson said that while the town of Hay River had escaped significant fire damage so far, the situation on the First Nation’s side of the river – where the fire began and where it encountered far fewer obstacles – was “a mess.”

“They are fighting fires over there. It is not good,” she said.

“We’re trying to put [the fire] out in KFN and getting sprinklers on our banks, so that if the thing hops the river, we have it as wet as possible.

“KFN has had a major, major hit to their infrastructure, that’s for sure.”

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

Scattered rain showers over the next day or two may bring limited relief but won’t help significantly as conditions are “already tinder-dry,” Westwick said.

There are now six fire crews assigned to SS005, with another six on the way from other regions in the NWT. They are assisted by three helicopters as well as air tankers, the GNWT said. More aircraft will soon join the effort.

The territorial government said the estimated size of the fire will be updated soon. Westwick said a further update is expected on Monday afternoon.

Situation ‘could change by the minute’

Glenn Smith, Hay River’s senior administrative officer, said that while there are no active fires in Hay River right now, “that could change by the minute.”

The town is “experiencing really high variable winds right now, with smoke coming in,” Smith said.

Describing Sunday evening’s evacuation, Smith said the fire had performed a “180 flip” that sent embers into the community as fire crews had to pull back.

Smith said Hay River residents were well-prepared to evacuate, given they had to perform the same task at almost the same time last year, when the town flooded.

“A lot of people have left today, this morning, and are still leaving as we speak,” said Jameson in a call shortly after noon.

“We’re trying to get the last of those that need transportation out of here, and crossing our fingers that this wind settles down or changes direction, because it’s really windy out there right now.”

Roadblocks have been set up to prevent anyone from entering either Hay River or Kátł’odeeche, but evacuees are continuing to exit.

For the latest updates and information, including how to access transportation, the Town of Hay River has set up an evacuation phone line: 1-833-699-0188.

Caitrin Pilkington, Chloe Williams and Talar Stockton contributed reporting.