Staff and volunteers wait to help returning evacuees at Yellowknife Airport. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
Residents of Yellowknife, Ndılǫ, Dettah and the Ingraham Trail have been returning – but only slowly – since the territory downgraded the area’s evacuation order to an alert.
According to the NWT government, 268 residents returned to the city on Wednesday’s opening day of “repatriation flights” from Alberta.
That same day, 676 vehicles drove north on the Deh Cho Bridge, a figure that includes commercial vehicles and traffic headed to other destinations like Fort Providence, Behchokǫ̀ or Whatì. On Thursday, the figure rose only slightly to 821 vehicles that day.
The figures for Monday and Tuesday, taken from a camera gantry on the north side of the bridge, were 475 and 491 respectively, suggesting no great surge of traffic on Wednesday, when the evacuation order lifted, or Thursday. Only essential workers had been permitted to head home on Monday and Tuesday.
More than 19,000 people had evacuated from Yellowknife and surrounding areas by August 18, the NWT government said at the time. “Close to 7,000” vehicles left the city during its initial evacuation, the GNWT said on Thursday this week, and just under 4,000 people left by air in the first three days.
Now, heading home, many Yellowknifers returning by car appear to be pacing themselves rather than racing back. There have been reports of difficulty finding accommodation in northern Alberta, which could dissuade some travellers for the time being, while others have made clear they are struggling to cover the cost of the return home, regardless of up to $750 offered in GNWT travel support.
Highway 7 from the BC border to Fort Liard remains closed due to a wildfire, cutting off that route for evacuees who fled to the province or Yukon by road.
Air travellers may be waiting for certainty in booking a commercial flight – or still on the list for a GNWT-backed re-entry flight. Those flights are expected to continue until Sunday and registration for them closes at 8pm on Friday.
Meanwhile, supports for Yellowknife-area evacuees outside the territory are ending.
“For evacuees from Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndılǫ and Ingraham Trail who haven’t made their way home yet, please make arrangements to return to Yellowknife as soon as possible,” Shane Thompson, the NWT’s minister of environment and communities, said during a Thursday press conference.
“We are grateful to residents because we have seen a staggering of their return home. But I do need to stress this … it is time to head home,” added Jay Boast, a spokesperson for the territory’s emergency management organization.
Speaking to Cabin Radio on Friday morning, Boast said: “We have heard the drive has been fairly smooth, that traffic hasn’t been much of an issue. There haven’t been the lineups going back that we saw on the way out.
“Originally, we were worried there would be this mad dash and that would cause significant delays if there was too much of a volume– if we saw the same volume going back that went out. Now we’re actually shifting to trying to encourage people that by Sunday, it is time to go home.
“If people are staying just to stay, now is the time to shift the focus to returning home.”
Yellowknife’s mayor, Rebecca Alty, has asked people returning by car to bring a few days of supplies to limit the strain on grocery stores as they ramp up to normal operations. Healthcare services in Yellowknife are also not yet back to regular levels, while services like childcare are expected to be well below their usual capacity for weeks.
Yellowknife and surrounding areas are also under an evacuation alert, meaning people are asked to be prepared to leave again at short notice, though the city has said another evacuation in the immediate future is “very unlikely.” An alert also remains in place for owners of cabins and homes along kilometres 284 and 320 of Highway 3, west of Yellowknife.
A territorial government webpage on evacuation notices, alerts and orders acknowledges “returning home after a wildfire affected the area may be stressful and traumatic.” The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs has published a guide to returning home safely.