Hay River, N.W.T. in ‘much better condition’ following evacuation: mayor

Click to play video: 'N.W.T. wildfires: Wall of flames inch closer to Hay River community'
N.W.T. wildfires: Wall of flames inch closer to Hay River community
WATCH: In the Northwest Territories, a wall of flames is inching closer to the community of Hay River. Extremely high temperatures and strong winds created a "blow-up event," forcing firefighters to retreat and prompting the evacuation of all non-essential workers. Caryn Lieberman reports – Aug 26, 2023

A town in the Northwest Territories recently evacuated due to a raging wildfire emerged “in much better condition” than anyone could have imagined only a day earlier when high winds and hot temperatures propelled the blaze close to its boundaries and forced fire crews and other non-essential workers to retreat, the community’s mayor said Saturday.

In a statement posted online, Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson said she and her dogs, along with soldiers and many fire support services workers, left her community on a Hercules transport aircraft bound for Edmonton on Friday night.

Jameson said the departure took place under “grim circumstances,” but upon waking Saturday morning she said she found the town came through in much better condition than anyone expected.

“Fire crews from over a dozen other communities with our own Hay River Fire Department completed drills day after day when time permitted to be ready for last night and the days to come,” Jameson said in her statement. “We thank them and their immediate local support contractors who stood their ground last night to fight for our community.”

Story continues below advertisement

The territory’s government said late Friday night that neither Hay River’s town centre nor any of the most populated residential neighborhoods have been damaged, although it noted there was likely structure loss to the west of town close to Great Slave Lake.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met with territorial Premier Caroline Cochrane in Edmonton on Saturday, said the federal government will help the territory long-term with building more resilient infrastructure, supporting people living in the North and planning for climate change.

Cochrane, who voiced anger toward Ottawa on Friday over the fact the wildfire-ravaged region doesn’t have the same services as the South, thanked the feds on Saturday for recent help from the military, which has provided logistical support with the wildfire fight.

“Again, we couldn’t have done it without the federal government. We haven’t done this before, so huge gratitude for the support the federal government’s given to date,” Cochrane said moments before her closed-door meeting with Trudeau.

“I’ll address the infrastructure gaps later.”

In an interview with Global News, Cochrane said she was able to hold the prime minister to account during their meeting and get across how the situation in the north is different from other areas in the country that are being evacuated. Most major cities in the north only have one road out of town, she explained, which makes it difficult for mass amounts of people to leave at once.

Story continues below advertisement

Cochrane did say Trudeau agreed to start making doing some constituency planning with the N.W.T. government to improve these situations in the future. The prime minister also agreed to fast track the employment insurance process for northerners displaced by wildfires as they will need financial support, she said.

“He promised that he would be looking at financial support to help us through this fire, not just through this disaster assistance but for other means,” she said.

Click to play video: 'N.W.T. wildfires: Hay River mayor says she will ‘never forget’ sight of fire ‘roaring’ towards town'
N.W.T. wildfires: Hay River mayor says she will ‘never forget’ sight of fire ‘roaring’ towards town

“And of course we talked about the need for infrastructure and my anger — I was very angry yesterday — so he realized the need and promised that we would be looking at long-term infrastructure needs so that when a fire happens, like in Hay River, that people aren’t having to drive through one road with fire on both sides and their whole communications went down,” she said.

Story continues below advertisement

“That was horrible to experience and I never want to experience that again.”

Trudeau said the federal government will continue to provide supports for the Northwest Territories. He noted that Cochrane was among the last evacuees out of Yellowknife and commended her for her leadership.

“You were helping people right up to the very last moment and what you are doing now in being absolutely focused on them is true to the person you are and true to the leader you are,” he said.

About two-thirds of the 45,000 people who call the N.W.T. home have left for evacuation centres, campgrounds and hotels as far south as Calgary and as far east as Winnipeg.

It has been more than a week since Yellowknife residents were ordered to leave the territorial capital, while the nearby wildfire has been kept at bay 15 kilometres from city limits.

An update from NWT Fire said temperatures were cooler on Saturday than the day before but were still above seasonal averages, keeping fire danger high for Yellowknife.

It said the fire remained 15 km away from the capital at its nearest point.

— With files from Slav Kornik and Meaghan Archer, Global News

Sponsored content