Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndılǫ residents can return to the evacuated area from the afternoon of Wednesday, September 6, the city announced on Friday.
Residents were told to leave on August 16. Most have spent more than two weeks in Alberta, though some have ended up in other locations. The new return date means the evacuation order will lift after exactly three weeks.
Essential workers are now expected to return on Monday and Tuesday next week.
“It’s not going to be services up to 100 percent. There’s still work to be done between now and when folks come home. But we had enough information today to say that we could have phase five begin on Wednesday,” said Mayor Rebecca Alty, referring to the city’s final phase of re-entry when everyone comes home.
After noon on Wednesday, she said, “when folks want to come, they’re welcome to come.”
The NWT government has said it is working on an airlift plan and taking steps to ensure gas is available for people driving home, though no fresh information was immediately provided on Friday. The GNWT said it will hold a press conference at 4pm on Saturday.
The City of Yellowknife and Yellowknives Dene First Nation announcement was made on Instagram and Facebook but not through the city’s website or in any form of press release. It was understood to have been driven purely by the city and First Nation, who told the NWT government on Friday they would announce a return date later that day, regardless of the GNWT’s readiness for a date to be made public.
No NWT government logo appeared anywhere on the announcement, unusually for an major evacuation-related communication. A short document setting out the plan instead featured the logos of the city and of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. The city and First Nation said they had been in “consultation with” the Department of Environment and Climate Change and the territorial Emergency Management Organization.
The re-entry plan so far applies only to Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndılǫ. It does not apply to the Ingraham Trail, which is outside the jurisdiction of either of those local governments. The territorial government has been approached for clarification regarding how and when the Ingraham Trail evacuation order will be lifted.
The return date – from noon on Wednesday, September 6 onward – is subject to change if conditions demand it, the city and First Nation stated.
“If there are any changes to the plan, we will be sure to let residents know,” Mayor Rebecca Alty wrote.
“Mother Nature can be unpredictable, so please remember that Wednesday, September 6 at noon is our current plan, but subject to change due to weather or fire behaviour.”
No system to group general population
There was no suggestion that the general population would be asked to return in phases starting on September 6. Instead, the city asked people to pace themselves heading back.
Alty urged residents not to relocate to northern Alberta ahead of time, as those communities are “currently at capacity and are unable to provide additional services.”
“For those residents returning by air, the GNWT will have more information on flights shortly. Please be patient, and stay tuned,” she said.
Environment and communities minister Shane Thompson, in a statement, confirmed the GNWT would respect and work with the city’s re-entry plan, though he hinted at frustration over its timing.
“We ask residents to stay where they are until the evacuation order is lifted on Wednesday. This will help make re-entry safer and more organized. Please do not travel back toward the NWT-Alberta border until Wednesday, September 6,” Thompson wrote.
“No supports are available in northern Alberta for residents considering moving north to wait for the order to be lifted.
”We recognize and thank the Government of Alberta, hosting communities and the people of Alberta for their incredible support during this evacuation. We acknowledge that today’s announcement and this timing might strain their resources, especially as Yellowknifers and residents of Dettah and Ndılǫ drive through Northern Alberta.”
Three officials from multiple levels of government, each with knowledge of an earlier key meeting on the subject, said the city insisted residents had waited long enough, even as the GNWT said it needed more time to finalize exactly those kinds of logistics – flights, gas, other supports – and how to communicate them.
From the perspective of some GNWT staff, the city was moving ahead irresponsibly, before every element of a safe return could be put into place and proper communications prepared.
“I don’t believe in zero-risk plans, just putting that out there,” Kieron Testart, a First Nation advisor central to its return planning, wrote in a public Facebook post on Friday.
The territorial government, unusually, implemented the initial evacuation order for the region as it had taken control of emergency management in and around the city at the time.
While that means the territory could, technically, reject a request for the order to be lifted, the GNWT is understood to have zero political appetite for that kind of confrontation in practice. Cabinet held a meeting about the city’s move early on Friday afternoon.
The region will move down one rung to an evacuation alert from noon on Wednesday, meaning residents will still be told to be ready to leave again if necessary.