An air tanker flies over an area of forest threatened by a wildfire near Behchokǫ̀ on August 2, 2023. Photo: GNWT
A wildfire burning west of Yellowknife is now “being held,” a status change that means it is no longer considered out of control.
NWT Fire stressed the status change for fire ZF015 “does not mean it is safe to return,” but Monday afternoon’s update represents the biggest shift in the fire’s status since it was first identified in late June.
ZF011, the Ingraham Trail fire, was also downgraded to being held.
The City of Yellowknife said it had “begun to contact staff who are critical to support the re-entry efforts, to request they return to Yellowknife.
But the GNWT sought to temper any expectation that a return to the city was imminent, and the city emphasized that this was not a call for any residents to come home unless the authorities specifically contacted them.
“Thanks to the tireless efforts of essential workers, we have completed our defence work and are now preparing for the return of our families, friends and co-workers,” said Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty in a press release.
“I must stress that we are still under an evacuation order and this is not a call for people to return to Yellowknife. I know that it’s been a stressful and difficult time, and we look forward to welcoming everyone home soon. Until then, please stay where you have settled and take care.”
Alty said there was no date yet for when residents can come home, but some workers would now be invited back “so the hospital can be staffed, grocery stores full and gas stations equipped.”
Even the date at which those critical staff might actually return is not yet apparent, though. Both the city and Stanton Territorial Hospital said on Monday that no such date existed.
Previously, Alty and city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett told Cabin Radio they were tentatively planning a five-day window from the first critical staff coming back to a wider recall of residents.
However, on Monday, Bassi-Kellett would not confirm that the five-day timeline still applied between critical staff returning and residents coming home, saying more information would “become available in the upcoming days.”
“We don’t have a date for when the fires will be declared under control,” said Jay Boast, an NWT government spokesperson, at a press conference moments after the fire’s status change was made public.
“Under control” and “being held” are different types of fire status. A fire being under control is usually significantly more difficult to achieve, in the boreal forest, than holding a fire. Boast said residents coming home while the fire was still “being held” was a possibility, depending on a range of factors.
“It was a monumental task to get everyone out,” Boast said, addressing evacuations across multiple communities.
“It’s going to require a thoughtful and staged approach to bring everyone back.
“We are still actively battling wildfire across our territory and we are not out of this emergency … it is not yet time to head for home.”
Yellowknife has been under an evacuation order since August 16. The same fire had earlier triggered an evacuation of Behchokǫ̀, a smaller community west of Yellowknife, where some structures were destroyed by the fire. Hay River and Fort Smith residents have been displaced for more than two weeks.
Boast said returning to each evacuated community would involve five phases:
the community being safe from wildfire;
checking for damage and identifying critical services;
essential personnel return;
re-establish basic services;
“We are working on the details around this and there are still some unknowns,” said Boast, describing the complexities of coordinating air travel home, gas for people who drive back, and safe highways as wildfires continue.
“We may have to look at whether we stagger the dates of travel,” he said.
“I have to stress: we are not there yet.”
Jessica Davey-Quantick, a spokesperson for NWT Fire, said Monday’s developments were “one step closer to the news we all want.”
Phane Ray, fire ZF015’s incident commander, said crews had made “pretty good strides” over the past week.
“We are still seeing some areas come up within the fire itself that are going to burn off, but we’re not too worried about those areas at this point as it’s well within the burn,” Ray said.
Kieron Testart, speaking on behalf of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, said the First Nation was working “hand-in-hand with the City of Yellowknife” to bring home residents of Ndılǫ and Dettah when able.
Boast said the current system of checkstops would remain in place to verify that people are returning to communities at the appropriate time.
“We know how hard it is to wait. To be fair to your friends, your neighbours and your community, everybody deserves to be safe and an equal opportunity to return home,” he said.
“That’s what we’re working on. People will be turned away if they are essential workers and have not been told to come home.”