N.W.T. says plan for post-fire returns ready but it’s ‘not time’

Officials in the Northwest Territories are stressing that there is no date yet in terms of when residents will finally be able to return home amid the ongoing wildfires, but laid out a five-stage process that will be followed when that time comes.

Jay Boast, information officer for the territory’s Emergency Management Organization, said Monday there was no date yet for when emergency officials would declare the fire under control or when governments and the territory would welcome residents back. But he added efforts have been made since evacuations were complete on plans for that return.

“It was a monumental task to get everyone out, and it’s going to require a thoughtful and staged approach to bring everyone back,” he said.

Once emergency crews and officials with Environment and Climate Change inform the territory that the fire is deemed under control, this will begin the five-step process, but he cautioned the timing would differ from “one community to another.”

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When the risk has decreased, including access for travel and air quality, communities will be assessed for what damage has occurred. In areas that received more damage, Boast said there may be a more involved process and damage assessments with be done in collaboration with governments and it will be determined what supports may be needed before essential people are brought back — who will be brought back in the third phase.

This will see the definition of essential people expanded to include community services that would be needed before the larger population is “welcomed back.” Basic services will then be re-established in the fourth phase, such as those who work at hospitals, gas stations and grocery stores.

Boast concluded, saying that residents will “come home” in phase five, but details are still being worked out to ensure there is enough fuel on hand for those who left via highway, and coordinate the return of those who flew out by air.

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“We may have to look at whether we stagger the dates of travel to ensure we don’t end up with congested routes that still are needed for wildfire response in other areas,” Boast said. “There is still a lot of work to do before communities with GNWT support can fully outline what the re-entry will look like.

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“That means I have to stress that we’re not there yet. we are asking you to hold tight. There is hope on the horizon, but our best efforts have to remain on the health and safety of our communities, our first responders and on beating these municipal wildfires that are still out there.”

Asked what would happen if people tried to return before they were told to do so, Boast advised that check stops and barricades in place continue and that people should not try to return until they are told they can do so.

Tens of thousands of people have been forced from the territories by multiple wildfires, including near the capital of Yellowknife. More than 21,500 have sought shelter in Alberta, with others having gone to B.C., Manitoba and Yukon to wait out the fires.

During Monday’s update, Jessica Davey-Quantick with the territory’s Environment and Natural Resources department, outlined where some of the fires stood with the fire near Hay River about 1.5 kilometres west of the town centre. While high temperatures and dry conditions could cause “significant fire activity,” she added strides were being made and ground and air crews have held back the fire.

Officials also noted that two of the fires in the North Slave area are considered held, while two others remain out of control.

However, Davey-Quantick also said that there were no new fires that sparked overnight or on Monday.

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“That’s a big one when we have as many fires as we do,” she said. “I will say several of the fires threatening communities have now been classified as being held.”

In Yellowknife, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett advised the two wildfires that were the cause of most concern for the capital were being held, which she called “awesome news,” adding there has been no damage to the city and it will be able to skip the second phase of the return process.

Even as officials say a plan is being established for the return of residents, lawmakers in the territory have decided that the election that was set to take place in October has been delayed to Nov. 14.

The legislature also pushed forward a $75-million special assessment for firefighting in the territory, an amount that dwarfs its average budget of about $20 million.

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Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek says the extra spending is going to put a serious dent in the N.W.T.’s public finances.

As of Monday afternoon, there were 241 active wildfires still in the territory. A total of more than 2.9 million hectares have been burned.

with files from The Canadian Press

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