Highway 2 leading into Hay River formally reopened to all traffic on Saturday morning, though drivers were told to expect smoky conditions and watch for fire crews at work along the road.
Highway 1 between Jean Marie River and the Highway 3 intersection was again subject to temporary wildfire-related closures throughout Saturday. That closure would not affect travellers heading home from Alberta to the South Slave.
Exactly how many people were making the journey home on Saturday was unclear, Most residents had been preparing for a Sunday re-entry date, which the town had tentatively been working toward until it brought the date forward by a day in Friday’s announcement, and GNWT re-entry flights – for those who didn’t drive – don’t take place until Sunday.
Some essential workers have now been back in the community for the best part of a week.
“We are excited to welcome everyone home from such a long time away,” Mayor Kandis Jameson said in a statement posted online on Saturday morning.
“It will take a while for things to get back to normal. We are able to return due to the relentless work of the unified command, wildland fire and structural protection crews that have given us a place to return to.
“Let’s all pull together to support our friends and neighbours that have lost their livelihoods as well as those businesses that have been closed for over a month. It’s a good opportunity to go out and reconnect at coffee shops, restaurants or your favourite stores.”
On Friday, Hay River’s council said conditions outside the community had reached the point where the risk posed by residents returning was now at an acceptable level.
Active wildfires continue to burn throughout the vicinity.
Returning residents “should be prepared to see increased fire behaviour to the east of the river, including large plumes of smoke,” NWT Fire stated on Friday.
“That does not necessarily mean it is not safe – a lot of work has been done to secure the Hay River corridor and First Nation, where further protections exist because the burned area from the May fire surrounds the most populated areas of the reserve.”
Hay River is reopening under an evacuation notice, the lowest readiness level above ordinary operations. The First Nation will welcome home residents under an evacuation alert, meaning they should be ready for the possibility of leaving again at short notice.