A wildfire west of Hay River is seen in a map of burn area and satellite hot-spots as of August 13, 2023.
People in the Hay River region have been ordered to flee to Alberta because of an oncoming fire, the third NWT evacuation order issued in the space of a day.
“An evacuation order is being issued for all of Hay River, Kátł’odeeche and Enterprise due to the risk of a wildfire from the Kakisa-Enterprise area (SS052),” Hay River assistant senior administrator Patrick Bergen stated by email at 3pm on Sunday.
“The fire is expected to reach Highway 1 this afternoon and is currently approximately 60 km from the Hay River community. There is a heightened risk of the wildfire progressing towards the Hay River community as early as tonight.”
Just before 4pm, the town said Grande Prairie, Alberta is the host community for all evacuees heading south. Fuel is available at Steen River.
The evacuation centre is Alliance Church, 15502 102 St, Grande Prairie, the NWT government stated.
If you need assistance leaving, call 833-699-0188 or go to the Hay River community centre.
Flights out of Hay River are scheduled to arrive on Sunday evening, the town stated in an email. “Those who still require transport out of the community can go to the airport,” the town wrote. People with special health needs have been transported out of the community.
This is, astonishingly, the eighth time an NWT community has been ordered to leave because of a wildfire this summer. It’s the second time Hay River and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation have been evacuated since May, and Enterprise becomes the eighth different community in the territory to face evacuation this fire season.
Residents told on Saturday to leave Fort Smith, two and a half hours east of Hay River by road, were still arriving on Sunday when Hay River’s own evacuation order went out.
“It is sad to say that the Kátł’odeeche First Nation has moved into a state of emergency. There is a fire between Enterprise and Hay River and it is out of control,” Chief April Martel told members of her First Nation in a video message.
“We are going to go into an evacuation order … I am sorry to say this,” Martel said, struggling to hold back tears. The Kátł’odeeche First Nation’s residents spent weeks away from home because of another wildfire earlier in the summer.
Jean Marie River, west of Hay River in the Dehcho, issued an evacuation order of its own because of a different fire just moments before Hay River’s order was declared.
The NWT has called in federal assistance and members of the military were said to be on their way to the territory, though exactly how they will be deployed is not clear.
Extraordinary pace of change
The rapidity with which events unfolded on Sunday was extraordinary, even by the standards of 2023’s extreme fire season.
Only at 11am on Sunday did the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure raise even the possibility of fire SS052, east of Kakisa, being blown sufficiently close to Highway 1 to cause travel delays.
But predictions of high winds causing an “extremely challenging” fire environment came devastatingly true in the ensuing hours.
While the fire’s exact position as of 3:30pm wasn’t clear, the fact that Hay River – some 60 km from the fire’s eastern edge – is concerned that SS052 could arrive by Sunday night suggested the fire was moving east at a tremendous pace.
For the first time this summer, an evacuation order was declared without authorities even being able to immediately name the community residents should aim for, instead specifying Alberta and promising more information would follow – a sign of how quickly the situation evolved.
Only almost an hour later was Grande Prairie identified.
The Smith’s Landing First Nation had already set up an evacuation centre in the northern Alberta community of High Level and had been planning to relocate evacuated members there in the coming days.
The Town of Fort Smith said on Sunday that Peace River hotels were offering cut-price rates to evacuees heading south.
“People are just trying to get fuel and get out,” said Trevor Beck, president of the Hay River Métis Government Council, as he worked to help youth and Elders prepare to leave.
“Until that’s done, I’m not going anywhere,” he said.