A stretch of highway between Enterprise and the NWT-Alberta border glows bright red sky the evening of Augus 13, 2023. Photo: Jorja Mulder
The biggest rescue operation in Northwest Territories history continued into the night on Monday as airlifts plucked stranded residents from Hay River and Fort Smith with wildfires nearby.
By midnight, the Town of Hay River said more than 200 people had been flown to safety in Grande Prairie and flights through the night would now take remaining residents to Fort McMurray. A similar effort was taking place in Fort Smith.
While there were reports of damage between Paradise Gardens and Enterprise, communities south of Hay River, the focus remained squarely on getting remaining people out of danger.
As of 12:30am there had been no reported injuries or fatalities in Hay River, the town said, and wildfires had not reached the community itself.
“Winds are now calm and we hope to see limited growth into the community overnight,” the town stated by email.
“215 people were flown this evening from Hay River to Grande Prairie. In addition healthcare patients were transported via other flight services.”
A widespread communications failure means virtually no information is leaving the town, which was deprived of its only road south by a new wildfire 20 km outside Hay River on Sunday evening.
But flight tracking websites showed Summit Air, Air North and Kenn Borek Air flights beginning an unprecedented airlift of residents to the Alberta community of Grande Prairie, where an evacuation centre awaits, and also to other destinations.
The need for an airlift – and uncertainty for much of the night, with no communications, as to whether the airlift was working – demonstrated an apocalyptic scenario unfolding in the territory’s South Slave region, even as officials did their utmost with the resources available.
Fires exhibiting extreme behaviour were bearing down on multiple communities in high winds, aircraft could not get off the ground to fight the fires or even be sure of the fires’ positions, and communications were out across most of the region.
Thousands of people under evacuation orders affecting four communities are attempting to reach Alberta. A fifth community, Jean Marie River, is under an order to head for Fort Simpson but the only road access out of the community has been cut off by the fire.
Shortly before 7:30pm on Sunday, the Town of Hay River stated by email: “A fire has started near Paradise Gardens and Garden Road, impacting outbound traffic from Hay River to Enterprise.”
Paradise Gardens is a region around 20 km south of Hay River. The only highway between Hay River and the rest of Canada passes through.
“Hay River residents should evacuate to the Hay River airport for transport by air,” anyone remaining in the town was told.
“If there becomes a need to shelter in place, the Hay River Airport is the designated location. A notice will be sent out to shelter in place if required.”
The trigger for Sunday’s evacuation order was another fire, SS052, which began the day burning more than 60 km west of the town but was being driven east by strong winds.
The evacuation order came mid-afternoon on Sunday, primarily over fear that waiting any longer would see Highway 1 cut off to the south – which appeared to be occurring on Sunday evening.
By 7:45pm, the Department of Infrastructure had confirmed Highway 2, the highway to Hay River, had closed.
By 11pm, one Summit Air flight was shown by flight tracking services to have landed in Grande Prairie, an Air North flight was on the way and two others were expected to depart.
Two people told Cabin Radio some residents were preparing to use boats in Hay River’s harbour to escape onto Great Slave Lake if a wildfire arrived.
Hay River has just over 3,000 residents. At the time of the evacuation order, it was also housing residents of Fort Smith – population 2,600 – who had been ordered to head for Hay River only a day earlier.
Hay River was evacuated earlier this summer because of a separate wildfire, and last spring when devastating flooding hit the community.
The NWT has called in the military to assist with this wildfire season, which is now easily the most disruptive on record.