A roadblock on Highway 3 on the evening of July 25, 2023. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The NWT government says it is placing the reopening of Yellowknife on hold because of wildfire risk along the territory’s highways in the coming days.
Highway 1 in the South Slave is the most pressing concern, and is expected to close for the entire weekend ahead. “Travel is highly discouraged during this time,” the territorial government announced.
The City of Yellowknife had said it was beginning to recall some critical workers in preparation to reopen the territorial capital at an undetermined later date, but almost all residents and workers are now told to stay away.
Only healthcare workers specifically identified by the NWT government will be allowed through, “effective immediately,” the GNWT stated just before 5:30pm on Wednesday.
“It’s a lot of emotions: frustrated, annoyed, upset when I first heard,” said Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty.
She said the continued return of healthcare staff was the one silver lining, describing the restart of Stanton Territorial Hospital services as one of the biggest challenges in the re-entry plan.
Alty said the city had been preparing to give residents a firm return date before it heard the highway news. “We were hoping to announce today or tomorrow,” she said, referring to date of the announcement rather than the return date.
“With this new challenge, we won’t be able to figure out [return dates] until we get clarity on Highway 1.”
The GNWT said: “High winds are anticipated to accelerate fires along Highway 1 from Friday, September 1 to Sunday, September 3. Highway 1 is currently open to essential travel but subject to closure without warning as visibility is poor.
“Due to the severe weather event, it is anticipated that Highway 1 will close to all traffic from Friday, September 1, to Sunday, September 3.”
Healthcare workers will be brought back by air, a process that the GNWT said will continue.
“This is important to allow time for safe resumption of services,” the territory stated.
“This pause in phase three of the re-entry process is driven by the need to prioritize the safety of responders and essential staff working hard to prepare Yellowknife to welcome evacuees home.
“The fire outside Yellowknife continues to be held. The fire risk to the community itself is decreased. This pause in the return of essential personnel is directly related to the risks associated with returning by road.”
Yellowknife still considered safe from fire
While the City of Yellowknife has a public reopening plan – and has spent the week telling residents the city is now safe from any fire threat – the municipality has been clear that the safety of residents on highways to the south is a territorial responsibility.
Alty said staff would use the unexpected delay to refine the list of critical workers, plan flight manifests and continue other work so that “when we resume this, we can expedite phase three,” the recall of critical workers.
“The fire outside of Yellowknife continues to be held and the fire risk itself has decreased. This pause is the result of wildfires in the South Slave,” Alty told Cabin Radio.
She said the highway closure meant continuing to recall staff risked overtaxing the limited supplies Yellowknife currently has, especially with road resupply likely to be cut off again.
“As soon as we have more clarity, we’ll announce it,” she said.
NWT Fire has so far held off producing a forecast for Friday and Saturday around Yellowknife, focusing instead on the potential for thunderstorms on Thursday, but the North Slave and South Slave are each facing high winds and a continued heatwave heading into the weekend.
Crews in Hay River and Fort Smith have already made clear that they expect extreme fire conditions on those days, and for protective work recently carried out to be challenged.