The NWT’s wildfire agency says the Hay River-KFN wildfire is now “being held,” a classification change that means the fire is no longer considered out of control.
The fire has held out-of-control status since it was first reported and for more than 10 days after evacuation orders were issued for Hay River and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation on May 14.
Thursday’s change to being held means the fire is expected to remain within a defined perimeter.
“It means we have a degree of confidence that the fire is not going to spread [to Hay River or the First Nation] based on the situation today,” said Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change, which manages wildfire operations.
“It’s not a certainty that fires which are being held remain that way forever,” Westwick said. “Vigilance is still needed going forward and there’s still a lot of people working hard on this fire.”
The Town of Hay River said earlier this week that the fire needed to reach “being held” status before residents would be allowed to re-enter. However, the town on Wednesday amended that guidance and said it would allow residents to return anyway based on its latest assessment of the situation, warning that an evacuation alert would remain in place and people should be prepared to leave again at short notice if conditions changed.
Westwick said the territory’s wildfire agency had not felt any pressure to reassess the fire as being held given the town’s decision to allow residents back – a decision Chief April Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation criticized in an interview with the CBC on Wednesday, saying she felt the return of residents to the neighbouring town may be premature and had not been properly communicated to her. (The town’s mayor, Kandis Jameson, apologized for any miscommunication in a separate interview with the CBC on Thursday morning.)
The town’s “advice was sound” from ECC’s point of view, Westwick said on Thursday, confirming that the department supported the municipality’s decision to allow residents to come home.
“They kept an evacuation alert in place and we both had a shared understanding and shared interest in making sure people understood that there did remain risks to this wildfire,” Westwick told Cabin Radio.
“We’re one of many inputs that the Town of Hay River considers when making these kinds of decisions. It’s communities who ultimately make the decision on whether folks return but, bottom line, we’re not influenced by any of that. We use our best assessments and the myriad expertise that we have here to make those classification changes.”
But the reclassification of the fire as being held does not mean any immediate shift for the First Nation’s residents, who – unlike their town counterparts – are told to stay away for now.
The First Nation suffered a much more direct hit from the wildfire and a number of buildings are reported to have been lost. Inspections of some buildings were beginning on Thursday.
“The fire being held does not mean that there’s not still active fire out there,” said Westwick.
“The Kátł’odeeche First Nation is in a very different position than the Town of Hay River ever was. There have been losses there and there’s a lot of work still to do there.”
More: NWT Fire’s full explanation of the fire’s status change
Over time, firefighters will now aim to transition to a “mop-up” effort at the Hay River-KFN fire, with some crews allowed back to their home regions of the territory.
“We’re only at May 25,” said Westwick.
“Usually, we’ve not had an incident of this scale by this time. There’s a lot of season ahead of us, so we’re very focused on making sure that every region in the territory is ready to respond to wildfire.”