K'atl'odeeche First Nation, Hay River, N.W.T., order evacuations as wildfire spreads

·4 min read

A First Nation reserve and nearby town in the southern Northwest Territories have been evacuated after an out-of-control wildfire began spreading in the area.

K'atl'odeeche First Nation ordered an evacuation Sunday afternoon, advising residents to register at the evacuation centre in nearby Hay River.

The Town of Hay River then ordered an evacuation Sunday night.

Residents of both communities have been advised to register at the Hay River Community Centre if they need help leaving, or at the evacuation centre in Yellowknife.

"I thought it was a dream," said Bryan Fabian, who is from K'atl'odeeche First Nation.

He drove all night and reached Yellowknife, which is about 490 kilometres away, Monday morning.

"I was just wondering about everything that we left behind," he said, noting he only took the clothes on his back.

Gladys Seaward said she, her husband and their two grandchildren, ages five and 15, also drove all night from Hay River to reach Yellowknife.

"My heart is breaking for them," she said of residents from the reserve. "As long as the people are safe, stuff can be replaced."

James Cardinal Jr., who is from Fort McMurray, Alta., said he arrived in Hay River Sunday night to work on a new apartment complex, and was staying at a hotel when the town was evacuated. He said he and his boss drove to Fort Smith, N.W.T., and arrived early Monday morning.

"Unusual feeling knowing people might lose everything they’ve worked for in the blink of an eye as we left town," he wrote in a message.

Michael St. Amour, mayor of Enterprise, located about a half-hour drive from Hay River, said there was a two-hour wait at the gas station as hundreds of people passed through the hamlet Sunday night.

"We tried to make them as comfortable as possible and give them the direction to go to Yellowknife," he said.

St. Amour said Enterprise has opened its community hall to evacuees and was serving breakfast Monday morning. He said about 300 people were still in the community hoping to get back to their homes.

In Fort Providence, about 140 kilometres from Enterprise on the north side of the Mackenzie River, the service centre has stayed open to support evacuees.

Linda Croft, manager of the Big River Service Centre, said around 11:30 a.m. Monday there had been a non-stop stream of people at the gas bar, store and restaurant since about 1:30 a.m.

"A lot of people from the reserve were very traumatized," she said.

Croft said they plan to remain open around the clock for the foreseeable future. She added the local campground opened Sunday evening for people leaving Hay River and K'atl'odeeche First Nation.

"We're here. Fort Providence is always here," she said.

The Town of Hay River said in a statement Monday that it was unsafe for residents to return due to predicted high winds and direction changes, but no buildings or homes in the town had been affected. It said the road into the town is being blocked, no amenities or health services are available there and police are actively monitoring the community.

N.W.T. Fire said Monday that about 15 buildings had been damaged on the reserve while the Hay River Fire Department had extinguished spot fires that jumped the river. It said six fire crews were working in the area with another six on the way.

K'atl'odeeche First Nation said on its Facebook page Monday that Northland Utilities had shut down all power on the reserve, and that all history and archives had been saved from the Yamozha Kue Society building.

The N.W.T. Emergency Management Organization said evacuees are encouraged to stay with family and friends. The territorial government has set up an evacuation centre at the Yellowknife Multiplex where basic necessities, including meals, are being provided. Campsites are also being made available for people with recreational vehicles.

Residents have set up a Facebook page to offer assistance to evacuees, such as pet care and transportation to places to stay. United Way Northwest Territories also started a fundraising campaign for those affected by the wildfire while the Yellowknife Co-op said it is collecting donations for that fund.

Roughly 3,500 residents from Hay River and the K'atl'odeeche First Nation were ordered to leave last May as the area experienced its worst flooding on record.

In October, the Northwest Territories government said it estimated flooding caused more than $174 million in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press