Fire retardant is sprayed near Hay River. Photo: Town of Hay River
Hay River’s mayor has issued a stark warning to residents who hope to return soon: steel yourself for the things you’ll see if you drive back into the community.
While Hay River’s central areas have largely avoided wildfire damage since the town’s August 13 evacuation, some pockets of settlement along the highway leading into the community have been badly damaged.
Collections of homes and small businesses tucked into oxbows of the Hay River itself – like Patterson’s Road, some 20 km south of Hay River – suffered “massive destruction” from the fire, town manager Glenn Smith said at a Friday press conference.
Nearby Paradise Gardens is understood to have met a similar fate. So far, a precise accounting of the damage south of Hay River is not available.
Most residents have yet to see the full scale of the damage, having been displaced for almost a month.
“It’s going to be tough on everybody, coming home,” Mayor Kandis Jameson said at the same press conference, held to unveil the town’s re-entry plan. The steps the town will follow to bring people home are now publicly available, though dates have yet to be assigned to each stage.
“To drive through into this community is going to be very tough on a lot of people,” Jameson continued.
“It was a tough go to see it. The devastation is unreal, so people need to be aware of it, to prepare yourself.
“The whole landscape of our community has changed.”
Jameson isn’t the only NWT leader to utter similar words in recent weeks.
In Yellowknife, for example, Mayor Rebecca Alty spent days warning returning residents that they were coming back to a changed landscape. But in that instance, much of the discussion was about man-made changes: fire breaks and other defensive features carved into those communities’ prior horizons.
In Hay River, the fire itself is responsible for much of the change residents can expect.
“My heart breaks for those people,” Jameson said, asked how she felt about the damage in areas like Paradise Gardens, which has now been hit by a flood and a fire in consecutive years.
“Some of them have lost not just their homes but their livelihoods,” the mayor said.
‘Almost veterans at this’
If there is any bright side to the town’s situation after its third evacuation in two years – beyond Friday’s announcement of the re-entry plan – Jameson said it might be the experience with which the town can attack this latest setback.
“We’ve gone through this a few times, so I’d like to think we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve,” she said.
“We know what to expect, I guess, is the bottom line. We’re almost veterans at this, which is unfortunate but it’s our reality.
“I had a conversation with the mayor of Enterprise today. Where do you even start? But he’s got a plan and they’re gung-ho. I said: ‘Let me know what you need from us.’ It is a matter of working together. We have great things that happen in this community, as well as really horrible things that have happened in the past. I think we’re stronger for them.”
The one difference with this evacuation is the scale.
Hay River’s evacuation merged first with Fort Smith’s evacuation from a day earlier, then with territorial capital Yellowknife’s evacuation three days later. Together, NWT evacuees have spread out across much of Alberta and beyond.
“Our plan is going to look a little different than it has in the past,” Jameson acknowledged.
“People were flowing all over western Canada, so gathering them back up is going to take some time.”
Dates for Hay River’s re-entry plan are anticipated next week, depending on the extent to which the wildfire flares up over a weekend that NWT Fire thinks is “potentially difficult” given the forecast warmth and wind.
The next-door Kátł’odeeche First Nation, which is running a re-opening plan in tandem with the town, has said it will bring back essential workers from September 12.
Jameson hopes re-entry for most Hay River residents may be seven to 10 days away, but knows she can’t guarantee it.
“Fingers crossed, if all goes well,” she said, asked if that estimate still held.
“Obviously, safety is number one. We do not want to bring people back if there is a safety concern … I’m hoping that a week to 10 days is reasonable.”