At the multiplex, again, Hay River and KFN evacuees await news

Xiaorong Chen and Wan Yin Yu wait to hear if their restaurant has been affected by the wildfire with friend Zhongren Wang at the Yellowknife multiplex
Xiaorong Chen and Wan Yin Yu wait to hear if their restaurant has been affected by the wildfire with friend Zhongren Wang at the Yellowknife multiplex. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

In a scene eerily similar to May 2022, residents from Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Hay River find themselves once again in cots and folding chairs under fluorescent lights, waiting for news.

The Yellowknife multiplex is the official evacuation site for both communities affected by this week’s wildfire, just as it was for last year’s flood. Last year, it opened on May 12. This year? May 15.

With the repeat at least comes a little more experience.

As flooding worsened in 2022, the town’s instructions evolved from ordering evacuees to Hay River’s recreation centre, then to nearby Enterprise’s community hall, and ultimately to Yellowknife’s multiplex.



“This year, our communication was very much to the point: that the evacuation centre would be in Yellowknife,” said Hay River’s senior administrator, Glenn Smith, on Monday.

Whereas many residents fled to High Level last year, this year northern Alberta’s hotels are already at capacity, Smith said, thanks to that region’s many wildfires and evacuations of its own.

But while some parts of the evacuation felt like déjà vu, for Mavis Kalu Klause, this year’s escape had a new intensity.

She woke to an evacuation alert sounding on her phone on Sunday evening, and described joining the convoy of cars heading out of Hay River.



“There were vehicle accidents, cars in the ditch. People got paranoid, I think. Everyone was driving so fast. There were campers just flying out of town,” she said.

Upon arriving in Yellowknife, it hasn’t become any easier to spend the night worrying in an evacuation centre.

“It’s traumatic for people. I heard that the store burned down on the reserve and, you know, a lot of people go to that store. I heard homes have been lost,” Klause said.

“I’m an Elder. I’m 75 years old, I have arthritis in my spine, and they’re asking me to sleep in a cot? I can barely get up out of a chair.”

Rumours abound about what has been lost and where the fire is headed next. So far, the First Nation and NWT government have not been able to formally verify any accounts of damage in the community, beyond stating on Monday morning that around 15 buildings had been hit by the fire in some form.

Wan Yin Yu and Xiaorong Chen, owners of Woodland Wok & Grill in Hay River, are concerned for their restaurant and how to support their employees. They’re not sure if their insurance will cover the loss.

“We won’t have any way to make a living if it burns down,” said Chen. “And even if doesn’t, there won’t be revenue coming in while the town is closed. How long will it be until people will want to eat in the restaurant again?”

So far, there is no report of any damage on the town’s side of the river.



“At least we had some idea of what to bring with us, after last year,” offers Zhongren Wang, an electrical engineer at the NWT Power Corporation.

“It’s literally a repeat of last year,” agrees Atanda Norn, who is once again working as an emergency coordinator for Kátł’odeeche First Nation. “But I don’t feel like a rookie any more.”

Last year, Norn organized KFN’s efforts to support residents and predict water movement during the flood. This year, the First Nation and the Dene Nation are coordinating their work to find hotel rooms for Elders and cover the unexpected cost of gas for members.

Atanda Norn outside KFN’s community centre in May 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
A bus of evacuees arrives at the multiplex on May 15, 2023. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

Norn once again helped families disembark from buses and checked names off lists as they arrived in Yellowknife.

On Sunday, before relocating to Yellowknife, she had watched from the other side of the Hay River as the fire bore down on Kátł’odeeche.

“We watched it go up. The flames were as tall as this building,” Norn said at the multiplex.

“People were screaming. I didn’t know how to feel. But as I left, I was crying. You’re watching your home burn down, and it takes a little while for that to sink in.”

More: Satellite views of Hay River-KFN fire emerge



Like Klause, she described panic on the highway.

“People were going 120, passing on corners. Water’s one thing, but fire’s unpredictable. You watch as the wind blows it one way, then another way. And it moves fast.”

As evacuees continue to make their way to the multiplex, Norn urged caution, particularly as heavy rain moved in around Yellowknife and the highway leading up to it.

“Be safe out there and take care of each other,” she said. “And keep us in your prayers.”