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With wildfire at Hay River’s doorstep, weather taking a bad turn

Northwest Territories preparing to ‘stand tall’ in critical juncture for severe situation
Premier of the Northwest Territories Caroline Cochrane, speaks on the wildfire situation after visiting evacuees in Edmonton Alberta, on Wednesday August 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

A wildfire official says the town of Hay River will be at risk over the next few days with strong winds and high temperatures making a dangerous situation even worse.

About 70 per cent of the territory’s population — including some 20,000 residents of the capital, Yellowknife, and the 3,500 inhabitants of Hay River — have been out of their homes for nearly two weeks.

N.W.T. wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said that while some good progress has been made in the Yellowknife area, the risk in Hay River remains severe.

“We’re reaching another really important juncture in this response. In Hay River, where fire has reached to within 1.5 kilometres away from the centre of town, we’ve seen three days that the fire has been shielded from the sun by the smoke,” Westwick said Thursday.

He said that has meant lower temperatures, more moisture and less fire activity, which is about to change.

“We expect the tides to change on this with winds expected to reach 25 kilometres an hour gusting up to 50 or 60 kilometres an hour, very low levels of moisture and temperatures reaching the mid- to high 20s,” Westwick said.

“There’s potential for some serious challenges.”

Westwick said his team, in conjunction with the Town of Hay River, has spent the last few days preparing for the worst. He said that work has included creating fuel breaks with heavy machinery, reinforcing them with fire retardant and setting up a huge network of sprinklers to protect structures.

“That team’s going to stand tall and we’re going to be ready to stand tall to fight that fire and keep our folks safe while we do so.”

Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson said the fire near her community is about 4,170 square kilometres or about six times the area of Edmonton. She says it has come close to the airport and town centre but has been held with little damage to any structures.

She said she has confidence in the firefighters, town staff and contractors who have been holding off the blaze.

“They will give us the best chance in the very challenging days ahead. The successes we have witnessed is indicative of the support that Hay River residents continue to have for each other,” Jameson said.

The Northwest Territories government said it will be applying the Disaster Assistance Policy for communities and surrounding areas where widespread property or infrastructure damage has been experienced and recovery efforts are required.

“Our government recognizes the stress that residents, businesses and community officials are under at this time,” Shane Thompson, the territory’s minister of environment and climate change, said Thursday.

“The activation of this policy is one way we can provide financial assistance for those who have suffered damages from this year’s devastating wildfires.”

RCMP said that as of Friday morning, no one has tried to travel beyond police checkpoints. Earlier in the week, the Mounties said they received information of a possible 50-vehicle convoy that may attempt to enter the territory from Alberta, and that “they will not stop for the checkpoints.”

“We will continue to assess whether this will actually materialize and take the appropriate steps to address it,” RCMP Cpl. Matt Halstead said Friday.

He said that in the event that someone were to try to force their way through a checkpoint, it could result in a combination of criminal charges and charges under the Emergency Management Act.

“This type of activity is the last thing the Northwest Territories and the people working to protect communities need right now,” Halstead said.

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