Hay River residents have had it tough, undergoing three evacuations due to natural disasters in the past two years.
As of Monday morning, the wildfire that prompted the latest evacuation was a mere one kilometre from the airport and only slightly further from the town centre.
Despite this string of displacements, Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson said the community will get through the latest emergency and emerge from it stronger.
“Our community is very, very resilient,” Jameson said on Monday afternoon, speaking to reporters in a web conference. “Obviously, we’re still standing after everything that’s happened.”
Hay River – along with several other NWT communities – has been under an evacuation order due to a nearby wildfire since August 13.
On Friday evening, a wildfire that had been sitting roughly 10 kilometres from the town moved significantly closer, triggering an evacuation of all essential personnel except firefighters. Two cabins and one travel trailer on the west side of town were lost, but there has so far been no further reported damage.
“This fire has reached our community in the areas of Mile 5 to Delancey Estates and Garden Road,” Jameson said on Monday. The mayor evacuated from Hay River to Edmonton on Friday night.
Although Sunday was a win for crews in Hay River, they faced another challenging day on Monday, with temperatures reaching up to 32C.
Asked about worries that the string of disasters might push some Hay River residents to look to relocate, Jameson said: “Obviously, that’s a worry for us, too. I can’t control Mother Nature.”
Queried about how much more residents can take, Jameson said residents will probably all have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder from their recent experiences.
At the same time, she pointed out that many residents have seen the amazing community they live in.
“It’s not doom and gloom in my community, by any means,” she said, adding that residents have been looking after one another.
She said the number of people who reached out to her over the past few days was “unreal.”
“I have not had any complaints. I have only had, ‘Hey, keep doing what you’re doing and hang in there,’” she said.
Reflecting on the latest evacuation, Jameson said what stands out to her is how many people did leave the community. After the past two evacuations, she said she thought it would have been harder to get people out.
“People understand the danger. They understand the risks,” she said, adding the zero lives so far lost in the community through the latest wildfire represented a “huge win.”
“I feel very strongly that we will get through this and we will be even stronger after,” she said.
Town getting support it needs
Although there were several questions about a potential re-entry plan, Jameson said the focus right now is on defending the community.
As the wildfire closed in on Hay River, some residents took to social media (and Cabin Radio’s inbox) to suggest the town is not getting the backup required.
On Monday, however, Jameson said she is getting all the support she is seeking.
“Premier Cochrane is on speed dial. So is Minister Thompson,” she said, referring to NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane and Shane Thompson, the environment and communities minister.
On Sunday, when more support was needed, she said heavy-duty and medium-duty helicopters were sent over.
“Social media can really work with us in getting messages out, but it can really work against us when we listen to rumours,” she said.
Jameson said the town is getting the support that’s required, adding there are a lot of crews on the ground, including support from across Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.
“Hats off to Premier Cochrane and her team for supporting us,” she said.
“We are her priority right now.
“By the grace of the universe or whatever powers that be, we are still here after what happened yesterday, and these guys are doing a phenomenal job.”
Crews supporting each other
Those working on the ground in Hay River haven’t had it easy.
Extending now for two weeks, the work to fight the fire has only gotten harder, Jameson said. Hot, windy conditions have dominated the past few days. As of Monday, the forecast suggests some relief coming on Tuesday and later this week.
Since essential personnel evacuated on Friday, however, crews on the ground have had to feed themselves with what’s left in the community.
Jameson said a variety of people have stepped in to help with this task, including paramedics who stayed behind in case firefighters got hurt.
Although food is not being delivered to the community, Jameson said big fridges and freezers are accessible in both the correctional centre and the hospital.
“It’s not that there isn’t food there,” she said – the challenge is getting the bodies to cook it and to get organized.
“The first night, it was the paramedics that managed to get some food together and feed the crew,” she said.
From the forestry team, she said, somebody also scrounged up some steaks and threw them on a barbecue. People that Jameson worked with before she left, who have remained in the community, also stepped up to feed the team on Monday morning, she said.
According to Jameson, crews are working shoulder to shoulder, with people picking up wherever they are needed.
“It’s a thing to watch, and absolutely something to be proud to be part of,” she said.
She hopes residents who have evacuated are supporting each other as well, and she encouraged people to talk about how they are feeling.
“Hug your neighbour,” she said.
“We’re not in the same boat, but we are definitely in the same storm.”