YELLOWKNIFE – Fire activity along a key Northwest Territories highway is expected to kick up in the coming days, while Mounties say they’ll stop a potentially large group from trying to re-enter when an evacuation order is still in effect.
The territorial government says Highway 1, which links up with Alberta, is open to essential travel but could close without warning due to poor visibility.
It’s expected the highway will close to all traffic between Friday and Sunday due to high winds, meaning there has been a pause on bringing back essential workers not in health care.
“Residents likely heard the re-entry for Yellowknife essential staff was paused due to looming highway closures north of the Alberta border. While we are one step closer to going back home, we still have to wait a little bit longer,” said Environment and Climate Change Minister Shane Thompson at a Thursday briefing.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the delay is disappointing but progress is being made.
“Although we’ve had to pause the return of staff, it doesn’t mean that we’ve paused working. Like me, you’re probably feeling annoyed, upset, frustrated and many more emotions,” she said.
“At the end of the day, we’re a remote community dealing with a challenging fire.”
Thompson said Yellowknife needs to be ready for a mass return of its residents and evacuees need to be patient.
“I am once again urging residents to stay away from the communities that are under evacuation order. It is not safe to return to these communities, so please do not create additional work for emergency responders who are keeping our communities safe.”
RCMP spokesman Cpl. Matt Halstead said police have received information that as many as 50 vehicles from Alberta are planning to return before an evacuation order is lifted.
He said it’s not safe to return to any evacuated communities, and anyone who risks the safety of government staff or RCMP officers at checkpoints may be charged.
“That investigation is ongoing and something that we’re monitoring and I have no information to suggest it has materialized into anything real as opposed to the planning phase at this stage,” he said.
“Please don’t engage in this behaviour. There’s risks on the highway. There’s the potential for delays for essential supplies coming in here. We’d have to turn you away and it’s a long way to drive for that.”
Wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said he knows first-hand that the highway isn’t safe with the limited visibility.
“I saw a structural fire truck with all their lights on emerge from the smoke and fog this morning a couple of feet away from me without ever having seen it. In terms of safety, accessing that highway is very unlikely to be safe for you,” he said.
About 70 per cent of the territory’s population – including 20,000 residents of the capital, Yellowknife – have been out of their homes for nearly two weeks or more.
Westwick said “really good progress” is being made in the Yellowknife fire but at this point Hay River remains under risk with fire being within 1.5 kilometres of the town.
Jameel Aziz, superintendent of Yellowknife Education District 1, said in a phone call that local schools are two weeks behind schedule as evacuation orders and checkpoints continue to keep territory residents out due to wildfires.
“In the North, we actually start school earlier than most folks do after Labour Day weekend,” he said.
Aziz said students were scheduled to begin school this past Monday while teachers were to have started a week prior.
“Because we have families displaced to all parts of Canada, our minister has reached out to most provincial jurisdictions to ask for some flexibility in allowing families to register their students to start the school year.”
Aziz said it may be a longer than anticipated wait before students can return to schools in the Northwest Territories, and that the school district currently has more questions than answers as wildfire conditions remain uncertain.
– With files from Jamin Mike in Edmonton and Bill Graveland in Calgary
Feature image: Vehicles line-up for fuel at Fort Providence, N.W.T., on the only road south from Yellowknife, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh