A dozer line where fuel was removed earlier in the summer in a bid to contain the Hay River-KFN fire. Mike Westwick/GNWT
Hay River residents can come home as of Saturday morning, the town said on Friday evening, moving up its return date to a point just hours away.
Residents of the neighbouring Kátł’odeeche First Nation reserve can come home as of 9am on Sunday, the First Nation separately announced.
The Town of Hay River said defences had held up during recent days of extreme fire activity, and town council had been satisfied that current conditions and the existing re-entry plan “meet the identified acceptable risk level.”
The areas of Two Seasons, Castaways Cottages, Paradise Gardens and Patterson’s Road have been labelled “compromised zones,” meaning only property owners and people providing essential services should go to those places.
In letters being handed to evacuees in Edmonton on Friday, Hay River residents were told GNWT-funded re-entry flights would all take place on Sunday.
“Hay River evacuees in Alberta … will need to check out of their hotel accommodations by Sunday, September 17. Sunday will be the only day for GNWT-paid re-entry flights from Alberta to Hay River,” that letter stated. A reception area at the airport will help returning residents get home.
People heading back were urged by the town to shop local, given most businesses have been out of action for more than a month. Hay River and KFN were placed under an evacuation order on August 13, their second of the summer after another in May, both triggered by wildfires.
Many essential workers have already gone back home, but thousands of Hay River and KFN residents were still waiting as of Friday.
Until now, Sunday had been the tentative return day for Hay River residents. It remains the return day for residents of the KFN reserve.
Posting on Facebook, the First Nation noted that a wildfire continues to burn nearby but said the work of firefighters meant “it is safe for the community to return under an evacuation alert.”
That means returning residents will need to be ready to leave again at short notice if need be. (Hay River said residents will return under an evacuation notice, one rung lower on the scale.)
“KFN members in hotels in Grande Prairie need to be checked out by Sunday, September 17th at 11am,” the First Nation wrote, asking anyone who feels they need more time to get in touch.
“If you are travelling back in your own vehicle, please bring food and water with you – enough for a day or two. Limited services will be available in both Hay River and on the Reserve for the next few days,” the announcement continued.
“No one will be left behind. Transportation will be scheduled for Monday, September 18 – time(s) to be confirmed. Reach out if you know of anyone who may need help coming home.”
Drivers are told to watch out for firefighters along the highway as they return.
Correction: September 15, 2023 – 22:32 MT. This report initially stated Hay River residents will return under an evacuation alert. That’s true for KFN, but Hay River will move to an evacuation notice as of Saturday, a lower level of readiness.