NWT Fire says the centre of Hay River was not damaged by a wildfire as of midnight but the fire is now “very close” and there is “likely structure loss” to the west of the town.
All personnel except firefighters were evacuated from Hay River by Hercules aircraft early on Friday evening as the fire bore down on the community from the west, driven by gusting winds that may have reached beyond 50 km/h.
NWT Fire earlier said extreme southwest winds had led to a “blow-up event,” with a kilometres-wide flame front moving toward the town. That forced back firefighters and water bombers, ultimately triggering the call to evacuate.
“The whole area is blanketed in thick, dark smoke,” wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said from within a Canadian Forces Hercules, also known as a C130, on the tarmac in Hay River.
“A dark tinge of yellow. You know, radiant orange sun behind that thick blanket of smoke. It’s very difficult to see in front of you,” he said.
By midnight, Westwick – evacuated to Edmonton – said Hay River’s town centre and most populated residential neighbourhoods had not been damaged, and nor had structures in the West Channel. “There is likely structure loss to the west of town close to Great Slave Lake. This needs to be confirmed in better visibility,” he wrote.
The fire “progressed a significant distance parallel to the highway on the west of the river,” the midnight update continued, and is “very close to town.”
Work was continuing on the fire overnight. Visibility was extremely poor, Westwick wrote, so information about structure damage was minimal.
“We want to be extremely clear: no front-line firefighters left when essential support workers were evacuated,” NWT Fire wrote. “They continued firefighting efforts throughout the night, and they will continue to work tirelessly to fight this fire and protect these communities.
“The impacts of this event could have been so much greater had the work on fuel breaks, ignition operations, structural protection (including sprinklers), and other critical firefighting efforts [not taken place] over the last two weeks.”
There was a race to move people to safety late on Friday afternoon.
By 7:35pm, both Hercules aircraft were safely away from Hay River bound for Edmonton. The first aircraft carried some 60 people, while passengers on the second flight included Mayor Kandis Jameson and senior administrator Glenn Smith.
Assistant senior administrator Patrick Bergen said some 30 to 40 vehicles had crossed the Enterprise checkpoint heading south out of Hay River, a route that had not been recommended but nonetheless represented safety. The highway from Enterprise to Kakisa was closed for much of the day and into the evening, again because of wildfire activity.
Westwick said firefighters would be doing “absolutely everything they can” to protect Hay River, and northerly winds on Saturday should push the fire back on itself.
“This will provide a good opportunity to regroup, assess, and continue fighting these fires safely,” he wrote.