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As it happened: South Slave essential workers head home, YK flights end

A photo of a controlled burn near Highway 1. Photo: GNWT


Essential workers in some South Slave communities are heading home after a month-long evacuation ahead of the expected return of all residents in the days ahead.

Hay River has set a tentative date of Sunday, September 17 for residents to come home. Fort Smith’s council has floated a date of Monday, September 18 for its residents’ return.

Meanwhile, the GNWT said its last re-entry flights bringing evacuees home to Yellowknife from Alberta had wrapped up.

On this page, we brought you updates throughout Wednesday.



Read our quick summary of wildfire threat to get the latest on the fires in less than a minute of reading. And remember to bookmark our homepage for all of our coverage in one place.

You can also check out our guide to how Yellowknife businesses are reopening and the offers they have for returning residents.

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  • Heading home? Please email us updates about highway conditions or your flight experience
  • Still an evacuee? Tell us how it’s going where you are. What are your concerns and what’s keeping you going right now?
  • Send photos and video of your experience by emailing us here

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Updates appeared below, latest first. All times are MT. Live coverage has concluded

Live text reporter: Ollie Williams in Yellowknife

17:11 – We’re wrapping up today’s coverage with this new report from me: The United Nations body tasked with preserving World Heritage Sites has approved a report calling for an updated action plan to save Wood Buffalo National Park.

That park, of course, has seen hundreds of thousands of hectares burn this summer. How that burn area is managed will be a fresh challenge on top of the threats posed by dams, the oil sands and other environmental factors.

Safe travels to those of you on the move. Our live page returns on Thursday.

16:19 – This photo just came in with the caption: “He realized we were just 100 km from home.”

(“Just 100 km.” In the NWT, when we evacuate, we really evacuate.)

16:06 – The GNWT just issued a correction to the below information (see 15:41). Fort Resolution residents aren’t on a list, as the previous GNWT statement implied. The list is only for essential workers.



15:41 – I’ve spent much of my day bugging the GNWT and Parks Canada for more information about what essential workers should expect when trying to drive home to places like Fort Smith along highways that all information states are closed.

This is the GNWT response just now:

“There is one checkpoint along Highway 2 for all travellers. Conditions on Highway 5 have been poor at times, and a pilot car will escort vehicles when needed,” a Department of Infrastructure spokesperson wrote.

“Highways 2, 5 and 6 are closed to the general public. Only essential workers and local Fort Resolution residents on the list will be granted access past the checkpoint, based on highway conditions.”

15:01 – Yellowknife’s annual community showcase, which was originally planned for tomorrow before the whole rather-large-crisis thing, will now take place on Thursday, September 21 at the multiplex.

The city writes: “For organizations interested in getting involved, note that tables are reserved on a first come, first served basis. The last day to apply for a table is September 20, 2023. For more information or to book a table, please email with the subject line COMMUNITY SHOWCASE.”

14:30 – Fort Smith has a new video about how to get home and what to expect, accompanied by a soundtrack that screams “everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

14:23 – The NWT’s health authority has put out an update on Yellowknife service levels. This is the authority’s summary of updates:



  • Obstretrics will open on Thursday
  • Paediatrics has fully reopened
  • Psychiatry has fully reopened
  • Elective surgeries expected to resume next week
  • ICU is back with three beds out of four
  • Rehab services are back to full capacity
  • Public health is back to full capacity
  • Community counselling now has same-day appointments available

14:08 – NWT Fire says the controlled burn east of KFN has “been assessed as successful,” having been carried by the wind east to meet the wildfire etc.

“This sucked away oxygen from the wildfire, knocking down the large columns which formed, and took away the path for the fire to turn west and become a serious threat to both the reserve and the Hay River corridor,” NWT Fire just wrote on Facebook.

14:01 – These images are new from NWT Fire, showing work on the fire guard east of KFN and Hay River.

The first image shows “where ignition was initiated at a dozer guard,” NWT Fire’s Mike Westwick stated by email.
This image shows “progression of the planned ignition as it progressed through the forest and headed off the wildfire’s path back to the west.”

13:30 – The CBC reports that Enterprise residents “whose houses are still standing can expect to return three to four days after Hay River residents,” which would mean the back end of next week.

12:39 – New from me: Parks Canada warned flying drones near wildfires is “illegal and dangerous” after a report of a civilian drone near the Fort Smith fires on Tuesday.

12:36 – The GNWT says all re-entry flights back to Yellowknife are now complete.

12:16 – The Tuesday Deh Cho Bridge toll gantry figure was 389 vehicles heading north. That’s the lowest figure yet and suggests the re-entry process by road to Yellowknife is now all but complete.

12:14 – Parks Canada’s latest update on the Wood Buffalo fire complex:



“Aerial operations were significantly impacted yesterday due to smoky conditions. As a result, crews used ground patrols to monitor the fire perimeter and worked to extinguish hot spots.

“Thebacha: Crews patrolled the fire perimeter in this area and extinguished hotspots. The perimeter in much of Connie’s Road and Foxholes road area is considered contained due to the significant ongoing active firefighting efforts of crews. As residents of Fort Smith return to the community it is imperative that members of the public avoid this area. Please give our crews the space they need to work safely.

“Fort Fitzgerald: Crews worked along the perimeter closest to Fort Fitzgerald to extinguish hotspots. Poor flying conditions meant that work was limited to areas accessible by ground. Work will continue to secure the perimeter south and west of the community.

“Highway 5: Firefighters continue to patrol the eastern portion of the fire perimeter along Highway 5 for any remaining hot spots. As members of the community return, please be aware of crews working along the road – please slow down and give them space to work as you pass. The RCMP are assisting with increased speed enforcement to ensure crew safety.”

12:09 – From the Town of Fort Smith’s protective services team: Anyone entering the town by road, boat or air who has not been identified as essential “will put unnecessary strain on those basic essential services as they ramp up to normal operations. People returning unnecessarily also put responders at risk as they work very hard to complete fire suppression work.”

The same Facebook post adds: “Highways are still being impacted by smoke and fire. More vehicles than necessary will also pose a risk to essential travellers. Please have patience and respect for those working hard to get us all home safely. Anyone not needed at this time will be asked to remain out of the community for a few more days.”

We have asked both the GNWT and Parks Canada to give us a little more information on highway travel for essential workers heading to Fort Smith, as I don’t think I’m the only one who’d be slightly spooked by lots of messaging saying “the highway is closed” while simultaneously being asked to drive back. I’m waiting for answers on that front.

11:18 – From my colleague Aastha: Norman Wells’ mayor says a ruined barge season is one thing, but the NWT’s changing climate is also coming for one big backup option to barges: winter roads.



10:53 – The Town of Hay River just warned returning essential workers that conditions are “smoky and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.”

“Limited services such as health will be available through the essential re-entry,” the town wrote.

“If you are returning by car, please drive carefully under smoky conditions and be very aware of fire crews on the road. There have been intermittent fire and smoke conditions on highways.

“Ensure you check out of your hotel as they will not close out the booking until you advise them.”

Regarding the fire that’s primarily burning east of KFN right now, the town wrote: “Under tough conditions, the defences that have been put in place have held. There was fire activity and a backburn in the area to the east of KFN. The backburn was successful. The structural protection unit had operations in the Sandy Creek, Birch Creek, KFN area and by the falls to ensure structures were protected.”

There’s more from the town in its full update.

10:33 – Our morning shows are back to being the full audio extravaganza on our live stream. Get the podcasts here to catch up each day. And hey, looking for stuff for the drive home? Get our evacuee playlist too.

9:53 – If you’re reading this and wondering why I still haven’t replied to your email: I’m getting there. There are still dozens of messages that require a proper response and we’re working on it! Thanks to everyone who’s writing in. All emails get ready as soon as possible, but responses may take a little longer.



9:50 – Meanwhile, a fresh set of Manitoba firefighters is heading out to work on the fire around Hay River.

9:46 – The latest NWT Fire outlook for the Yellowknife fires says there’s “high potential for active fire behaviour” on Wednesday, and you can expect widespread smoke throughout the day.

If you’re driving, expect crews on the road between km 280 and Yellowknife.

For fire ZF085, crews are “starting the pumps around values at risk in the vicinity of Defeat Lake today,” NWT Fire said.

9:34 – RCMP say they’ll join municipal enforcement in patrolling school zones and bus routes as Yellowknife’s students head back to school, police said in a press release just now.

9:22 – Flights to bring home residents of Yellowknife seniors’ facility Avens begin today, according to a press release the group issued yesterday.

“We have scheduled the repatriation exercise to take place from Wednesday, September 13 through Saturday, September 16,” Avens wrote. “To achieve this, we will be utilizing four separate daily charters during this repatriation period.”

9:09 – Deals from around 30 Yellowknife businesses are on our page dedicated to getting customers back through the doors of local stores. Go check out what’s on offer and, if you have a business in the city, you can use the form on that page to send us your own update.



8:59 – When it’s safe to do so, please do send photos from trips you’re making home across the NWT.

A bear in the vicinity of Enterprise in September 2023

This photo of a black bear in the vicinity of Enterprise yesterday comes from semi-professional wildlife photographer Wiley Wolfe, whose work you can follow on Instagram.

8:43 – Hay River’s Diamond Jenness Secondary School says it’ll have a “soft start” familiarization day on September 22, then classes resume on September 25. The same applies to Princess Alexandra School and Harry Camsell School.

8:38 – Our wildfire latest page is current as of late last night. Daily updates on the fires around Yellowknife are no longer being issued, so that page now focuses entirely on the South Slave.

8:30 – Things to read this morning if you’re biding some time in Alberta, settling in with a coffee at a desk in Yellowknife, nestled in the passenger seat on the long drive home or dreaming of the first tee in Wekweètì:

8:21 – And if you need the flight registration link to get a plane home to the South Slave from Alberta, that link is here.

(I know the GNWT calls this “pre-registration” but you only ever register once, and then you get a flight, so it’s registration, really, surely.)

8:19 – It is a really smoky morning, not just in Yellowknife but also in Hay River, Fort Smith and across large parts of northern Alberta. Expect visibility issues if you’re driving. I’ve asked the GNWT for an update on Highway 2 and Highway 5 access and conditions for those essential workers looking to go home by car.

8:13 – Good morning! If you’re an essential worker heading home today, safe travels. Send us updates as you go.