The Town of Hay River says residents will be able to start returning home from Thursday this week after an evacuation order lasting more than 10 days.
“Town officials met this morning and decided to open the Town of Hay River for residents’ return tomorrow,” the town stated in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
The evacuation order will be downgraded to an alert, meaning residents must be prepared to leave the town again at short notice if the wildfire burning to the east of the community flares up.
“Conditions are still not without risk, but the town recognizes the offsetting impact and risks to residents being away from their homes. There is a brief period of time needed to assess critical infrastructure and allow essential staff to return before the town is open on Thursday morning,” the town wrote.
More: Read the town’s full re-entry plan
More: Relief but financial worry as Hay River residents head home
That timeline does not apply to the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, which was more seriously hit by the wildfire and which is devising a separate plan for evacuees to come home.
“The Kátł’odeeche First Nation is working with the GNWT on action plans for coming home but as you all know, KFN, it will take a bit longer,” the First Nation wrote on Wednesday morning.
The town said people with special healthcare needs won’t be able to return to Hay River yet, with more information to follow.
“The threat of an evacuation in the future will remain through the fire season,” the town concluded.
Most of the town’s 3,500 or so residents have been away from their homes since an evacuation order was issued on May 14 in response to a nearby wildfire.
At more than 10 days, this year’s evacuation has lasted significantly longer than an evacuation of two to three days required when the town flooded last year.
The strain of the current evacuation has shown, with residents demanding a clear timeline and financial support after a virtual public meeting on Tuesday had to be abandoned because of technical difficulties.
The wildfire that triggered the town’s evacuation continues to burn east of the neighbouring Kátł’odeeche First Nation, which bore the brunt of its severity in the initial days following the evacuation order. While more than a dozen buildings on the First Nation’s reserve were hit by the fire, the Town of Hay River has so far not reported any damage.
The fire has now burned through more than 3,000 hectares and has been spreading to the east in recent days, away from the communities. The NWT’s wildfire agency says work continues to establish thorough defences between the fire and the communities in case conditions change.
“We’re doing our best to get this fire to a position of being held, and I hope I can bring you that good news in the next couple of days,” said Westly Steed, the NWT government’s incident commander for its response to the fire. Being held means a fire is being kept within a predetermined area
Steed said crews had “done very well” to remove fuels between the fire’s west side and the First Nation “to make sure that the community is safe.”
“We’ve had a couple of good days. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t seen a lot of growth on this fire in the last couple of days. But there’s still work to do,” he added. Overnight rain in Hay River from Tuesday into Wednesday helped fire crews, but that rain was forecast to dry up again on Wednesday with highs of 27C and dry conditions expected to return later this week.
Smith said the town is working to firesmart “higher-risk public areas,” meaning the removal of some fuels that could help a fire take hold, while the landfill is also receiving additional protection in a bid to avoid another long-lasting and damaging landfill fire.