Officials plead for patience and preparation when residents return to Yellowknife

A view of Yellowknife, looking towards downtown. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)
A view of Yellowknife, looking towards downtown. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)

Officials in the Northwest Territories are warning people to be well prepared for their return to the Yellowknife area, and to consider if they should go back on the first day they're allowed.

It's expected more than 7,000 cars will be on the road heading back to Yellowknife, Ndilǫ and Dettah after the emergency evacuation order is lifted on Wednesday at noon. With such pressure expected on the limited services along the route home, officials are asking people to consider waiting.

"People should decide whether they want to be in that first wave or not," said Jay Boast, a spokesperson with the department of Municipal and Community Affairs.

Local and territorial government officials held a news conference on Saturday afternoon, running through what's expected on Wednesday when the largest stage of the return begins.

Northwest Territories Health Minister Julie Green said returning residents should expect Stanton Territorial Hospital to be running basic services only.

"Please be patient because of our limited capacity."

For those travelling by air, flights will depart as early as Sept. 6 and will continue for five days, although this can be extended if need be. Boast encouraged those flying to register as soon as possible.

The return will be done in phases, with essential workers expected to start coming home on Monday and Tuesday. After that, the general population will be able to return as of noon on Wednesday, and officials are asking anyone with health conditions to wait longer before returning.

Minister Shane Thompson said that evacuees returning home via road will be responsible for their own accommodations, food, and other expenses. This comes despite the government encouraging as many who could to leave by road.

It's been three weeks since the territory told everyone to leave due to an approaching wildfire. That wildfire is now considered to be held, meaning it isn't expected to grow under current conditions.

On Saturday afternoon, the territorial government released some details about pre-registration for flights home.

Below are live updates from Sunday afternoon's news conference. Updates appear in descending order, from newest to oldest. Refresh your browser for the latest updates.

5:31 p.m. — That's the end of the news conference. Thank you for reading. The next news conference will be on Monday.

5:28 p.m. — Cabin Radio asks about commercial flights and if there's a date people can start booking their own flights.

Edison says it is a fluid situation, that the territorial government is working to get the airport set up and they originally looked at Sept. 10, but he hopes it can be sooner. Edison apologizes that he can't give a final date "so many moving parts to get there."

5:27 p.m. - CBC News asks if Fort Providence will be receiving any assistance from the territorial government after all its assistance to evacuees. Thompson said there is a hosting grant that the community can apply for and he's working with them.

5:24 p.m. — CBC North asks what the ground transportation will be for people arriving at the airport.

Bassi-Kellet says the city is working to have transportation services that can take people directly to their homes or to locations such as Sir John High School and Dettah.

Kieron Testart, who works with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, says they are organizing a bus service for members.

5:22 p.m. — CBC News asks if the territorial government has toured Enterprise, which was largely destroyed by a fast moving wildfire in mid-August. Thompson says he's planning to go soon and they're making plans on Monday, as the hamlet's mayor invited officials to the community.

5:10 p.m. — Cabin Radio asks about where checkpoints will be over the next four days. Edison says there's only one checkpoint, on Highway 3 kilometre 272 for entry into Yellowknife.

He says anyone who is not on the essential service list and tries to drive into the city before Wednesday at noon will not be allowed to pass this checkpoint.

5:09 p.m. — CBC North asks if people who drove out but don't have a ride back can take a flight back. Fulford says yes they are eligible for a return flight.

5:07 p.m. — CBC News asks if Big River Gas Station and High Level will have enough fuel for everyone. Edison says they've been talking with fuel service providers and "there's no concerns."

5:05 p.m. — Cabin Radio asks about what the baggage situation will be for people who are returning by flight with more that they left with.

Jamie Fulford, of the N.W.T. emergency management organization, says people can bring back two 50 pound bags and there will be some allowances for pets. While it's preferred they be in carriers, he said they can be on leash or in the owners' arms.

5:03 p.m. — CTV asks when other N.W.T. communities can return home. Thompson says when it's safe.

4:59 p.m. — Edge North asks when the city told the territorial government about the return plan. Alty says they've been working together, but didn't give a clear answer.

Sheila Bassi-Kellett, the city manager, says the city had the authority to decide on the timeline of the return.

Still unclear when the territorial government was informed of the return plan.

4:57 p.m. — CBC North asks about why there are few supports for people who drove out, when they were encouraged to do so. The Department of Finance says they have some supports, but understands it may not be enough.

4:56 p.m. — Natalie Pressman, CBC North, asks how residents staying in non-regional centres will access flights.

James Fulford, incident commander with the Emergency Measures Organization, says they're working with Alberta to figure that out. He adds this is a reason for people to register early so authorities can figure out where everyone is.

4:53 p.m. — Juanita Taylor of CBC News asks about the staggered return plan and if that's still the case. Mayor Alty says there are phases, but the return is essential workers first, general population next, those with health conditions after that. Jay Boast, a spokesperson with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, adds that people need to decide on their own what day is best for them to return.

"Decide whether they want to be in that first wave or not," Boast says.

4:52 p.m. — True North Now asks what the plan would be if the highway is closed mid-repatriation and where they should go with few accommodations north of Edmonton. Edison says the closures are often short, but that people need to be prepared for closures. "Have water and some food and essentials on hand," he says.

4:47 p.m. — Thompson and Edison provide details on the closure of Highway 7. There's hope it will open in a few days but be aware roads can close suddenly. They encourage everyone to follow the highway maps. You can read more about road closures here.

4:46 p.m. — CKLB Radio asks if the residents of the Ingraham Trail can return as well. The answer is yes.

4:43 p.m. — Cabin Radio asks for a timeline on the resumption of commercial flights. Edison says they first need to get all the airport staff back to Yellowknife. "Airports are highly regulated to ensure safe operations," he says.

4:39 p.m. — NNSL says he heard Big River Gas Station in Fort Providence won't be open for 24 hours during the repatriation. He asks if the territory has a plan to ensure drivers can fuel up. Edison says there's some plans to try and keep Big River open later, but that drivers should be prepared for the station to be open 6 a.m. to midnight and to plan accordingly.

4:34 p.m. — After a question from Radio Taïga, Mike Westwick, N.W.T. fire information officer, says they feel good about the state of the fire threatening Yellowknife. But he says people should be prepared to leave if need be, as there will still be an evacuation alert in place.

4:32 p.m. — Médias ténois asks about the financial assistance from the N.W.T. and if people will receive it before they head home. William Mackay, deputy minister with the department of finance, says they hope most will receive the funding by Wednesday, but not all.

4:31 p.m. — Shane Thompson, minister of municipal and community affairs, tells people to drive carefully as there is still smoke on the highway.

4:30 p.m. — Jeffrey Edison, acting assistant deputy Minister with the Department of Infrastructure, says residents need to be prepared themselves. There will be porta-potties along the highway and that there will be tow trucks.

4:28 p.m. — Media questions begin.

4:26 p.m. — Boast says evacuees returning by vehicle should not expect Behchokǫ̀ to have services, such as gas, available.

4:25 p.m. — Boast says there are limited resources available in northern Alberta communities due to South Slave evacuees, and that residents shouldn't expect there to be accommodations.

4:24 p.m. — Boast reiterates what Thompson said about South Slave evacuees, that they shouldn't return to Yellowknife. He says the territorial government is covering accommodations of Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndilǫ evacuees until Sept. 8.

4:22 p.m. — Jay Boast, an information officer with MACA's emergency measures organization, says people shouldn't prioritize being first to get back. Flights will depart as early as Sept. 6 and will continue for five days, although this can be extended if need be. Boast encourages those flying to register as soon as possible.

4:18 p.m. — Alty tells people to come back with provisions for the first 72 hours, urging people to bring extra cash and non-perishable foods. "If you can do them, that's great, if not, don't worry about it."

4:17 p.m. — Alty says those driving should be prepared for delays. She reminds people that they'll be coming home to basic services. "There will be limited cashiers in stores and more."

4:16 p.m. — Alty says the return will be opposite to the evacuation. Those with any medical issues should not return right away. The return is also completely dependent on the weather and the state of the highway, she says.

4:15 p.m. — Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty says she released the announcement Friday afternoon because she wanted it released as soon as it was ready.

4:13 p.m. — Green says people should expect another month before services return to how they were pre-evacuation.

4:11 p.m. —  Julie Green, N.W.T. health minister, says returning residents should expect Stanton Territorial Hospital to be running basic services. "Please be patient because of our limited capacity," she said. You can read about what's available here.

4:10 p.m. — "We ask residents from those South Slave communities to stay where you are instead of travelling to Yellowknife," Thompson says, adding there won't be resources there to support them.

4:07 p.m. —"Please do not drive" until after the order lifts, Thompson says. He says those in need of a flight can register online or call 1-888-383-4830.

4:06 p.m. — Shane Thompson, minister of municipal and community affairs, says the department plans to follow the request from the city and Yellowknives Dene First Nation to change the evacuation order to an alert.

3:45 p.m. — We're getting ready to go live, armed with a bundle of questions you've sent in. Thank you to everyone who emailed and texted us with their questions! We will ask as many of them tonight as we can.