A GNWT image of a controlled burn to the south and east of Sambaa K'e on June 13, 2023.
Sambaa K’e residents are getting ready to fly home on Saturday, a month after the community was evacuated due to a wildfire.
The Dehcho community of roughly 100 people has been under an evacuation order since May 31. For the past month, most residents have been anxiously waiting in Fort Simpson.
On Saturday, two morning flights – one at 8:30am and another at 10:30am – are scheduled to take Sambaa K’e residents home, according to Jessica Jumbo, environmental and lands coordinator for Sambaa K’e First Nation.
Another flight is scheduled on Saturday afternoon to transport pets.
When Cabin Radio contacted Jumbo on Friday afternoon, she was busy packing.
While Chief Dolphus Jumbo was not immediately available on Friday, Jay Boast – a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which helps to coordinate evacuation logistics with communities – confirmed residents are heading home.
“Discussions are ongoing and planning for a return tomorrow is being actioned,” he wrote in an email on Friday morning.
Boast said the NWT’s emergency management organization is prepared to support the Sambaa K’e First Nation, which is leading the return. That includes figuring out flights back to the community.
As of Thursday, the wildfire near the community was estimated to have burned 450,803 hectares and was roughly eight kilometres away from Sambaa K’e, according to the territory’s fire agency. It has remained at that distance for weeks.
At least two cabins were reported in early June to have been lost to the wildfire. A home also burned down when a territorial ignition operation intended to protect the community went wrong.
The fire itself is no longer an imminent threat, according to Jumbo, but there is still smoke in the area.
On Thursday, the NWT’s chief public health officer issued an advisory regarding that smoke, stating that “the air quality in Sambaa K’e is currently unhealthy due to smoke from wildfires.”
Air quality monitors have been set up and Sambaa K’e First Nation is looking into air purifiers for people’s homes, Jumbo said. She added that the priority is getting air purifiers to homes where Elders and small children live.
As the community’s environmental monitor, Jumbo had also been concerned that ash from the wildfire might make the community’s drinking water dangerously acidic. Testing has confirmed that water in a reservoir used for drinking water is safe, she said.
Fort Simpson’s mayor, Sean Whelly, described Sambaa K’e residents as “very good guests” over the past month.
Evacuees have been staying in a variety of accommodations, he said, including hotels, student accommodation, a campground, and with family and friends.
“They blended into the community quite easily, I think because they’re related to so many people here,” Whelly said. “They have a lot of friends or family.”
Still, being away for so long, he suspected many people are anxious to be home.