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Wildfire forces crews to retreat, threatens key hub point of Hay River, N.W.T.

YELLOWKNIFE — Wildfires advanced closer to the transportation hub point of Hay River in the Northwest Territories Friday, forcing crews to retreat and non-essential workers to flee.
People without vehicles lineup to register for a flight to Calgary, Alberta, in Yellowknife on Thursday, August 17, 2023. The premiers of Alberta and the Northwest Territories are scheduled to tour a Calgary reception centre for wildfire evacuees from the territory this afternoon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Braden

YELLOWKNIFE — Wildfires advanced closer to the transportation hub point of Hay River in the Northwest Territories Friday, forcing crews to retreat and non-essential workers to flee.

“Extremely high temperatures and strong southwest winds have created a blow-up event that has overwhelmed firefighters at the north end of the fire,” fire information officer Jessica Davey-Quantick told reporters in a conference call Friday night.

“There's currently a kilometres-wide flame front moving parallel to the highway towards Hay River.”

She said the fire was reported as close as seven kilometres to fireguards protecting the town, but said it has likely advanced closer than that.

“Wildfire crews and aircraft have been pulled back and repositioned to a safe area,” she added.

“No firefighters have left at this time. Non-essential personnel, however, are being evacuated for their own safety.”

Hay River, on the south end of Great Slave Lake, is a key transportation and transshipment point for goods in the N.W.T.

It is one of multiple communities, including the territorial capital of Yellowknife, that have ordered residents to leave as the sprawling region battles 239 active fires.

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

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said they still do not have a firm timeline for evacuees to return.

She said when they do it will be a phased approach to ensure residents have essential services such as water and sewage pumpouts, and that stores have food and the hospitals are properly staffed.

“When we come back, we won’t all come back at once,” said Alty on the conference call.

“It will take a bit of time to make sure we're ready to support a city of 20,000 again.”

The N.W.T. legislative assembly is working to craft programs to provide aid for evacuees and will meet Monday to approve appropriations for the fire budget.

“Our firefighting budget typically is under $20 million, and we are more than three times that, probably four or five times that (amount) at this point,” said N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek.

Wawzonek announced that those who left the N.W.T. by vehicle to points south will be reimbursed $750 per auto on a one-time basis. Those who fled by vehicle within the territory can get $400 per auto. 

Wawzonek acknowledged those payouts may be seen as not enough money or be deemed unfair given those who left in more autos are eligible for more money -- but she said officials are doing the best they can.

“What we were trying to do is, firstly, be quick about what we were designing. Secondly, try to do something that could respond to a real range of themes that we're hearing right now around making sure that people's essential needs are met,” said Wawzonek.

Earlier Friday, N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane was in Calgary and toured an evacuation centre for fellow northerners.

Cochrane told reporters in Calgary she was angry the wildfire-ravaged region doesn't have the same services as the South, and she called on Canadians to pressure the federal government to act.

Cochrane said she's spent years calling for the federal government to help the territory develop roads and communication technologies needed to keep people safe as the territory sees more fires and other climate change impacts.

"I'm tired. I've been tired for a long time for asking for infrastructure," Cochrane said. 

"And now I'm angry."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Friday whether federal authorities had failed the territories because of infrastructure gaps. He said it was "part of the reflections" that would take place on the fires and their response. 

"Within two days, they'd evacuated close to 20,000 people in a very effective way and that's, as you say, not a credit to great infrastructure," Trudeau said at a firehall in the Okanagan in the British Columbia Interior, another area hit hard by wildfires in recent weeks. 

Trudeau noted that the fire had not reached Yellowknife and said "next time we might not be so lucky."

"We're going to need to learn from these near-misses."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton, with files from Dirk Meissner in West Kelowna, B.C., and Colette Derworiz in Calgary

The Canadian Press