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N.W.T. wildfire season rages on despite return home for many residents

While the wildfire situation is improving for some Northwest Territories residents who were allowed to return home this week a month after they were evacuated, officials are warning that threats persist in areas of the territory where fires are still actively burning.

Representatives from municipal, Indigenous and territorial governments on Tuesday evening provided an update on the status of fires and recovery efforts in the Northwest Territories as the wildfire season there continues to play out.

"We have 121 active fires in the Northwest Territories today," said Mike Westwick, wildfire information officer with the N.W.T. Department of Environment and Climate Change during the televised update.

"That's 296 total this year with more than 4,035,000 hectares of land affected."


Westwick said crews are fighting two new fires; one 15-hectare blaze approximately 60 kilometres from the road into the South Slave Region community of Fort Simpson, and a smaller one about 27 kilometres southeast of Fort Liard, near the border with British Columbia.

Westwick said Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Hay River, whose residents were allowed to return home Monday a month after they were evacuated, "are secure as a result of the hard-fought efforts of the team managing it," which include residents of both the First Nation and Hay River.

Nevertheless, he said "stubbornly warm conditions and strong winds" will keep fire crews in the area busy through the coming week.

Elsewhere, in Fort Smith, Westwick said fire defenses continue to hold, with the main wildfire threatening the community now more than 95 per cent contained. In the Sahtu Region, crews continue to fight a wildfire that was originally sparked by a smouldering coal seam and has since grown to cover approximately 195 hectares.

Small spot fires continued to flare up alongside Northwest Territories highways leading into Hay River, Fort Smith and Yellowknife, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. Depending on wind conditions, and potential threats to infrastructure, cabins or communities, these fires are often left unattended while crews concentrate on protecting major exposures. Persistent warm weather, breezy days and weeks of drought are prolonging a northern fire season that normally quiets considerably by this time of year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Braden

"Fire VQ054 in the Sahtu (Region) is approximately three kilometres east of Tulita," Westwick said. "We've got crews and helicopters successfully working to hold that fire in place."

Westwick said that fire does not currently pose a risk to the community.

Although the territory has seen some relief in recent days in the form of cooler temperatures in the north, Westwick warned wildfires are expected to continue posing a challenge in the south due to warm temperatures and strong winds there.

"So what that means is that even as we settle back into our lives here, we're not living in a fire-free place and we won't be living in a fire-free place until the snow falls," he said. "And it's a position where folks are having to learn to live with fire in more intimate ways than they ever have in their lives."


Although an evacuation order remains in place for the southern hamlet of Enterprise, residents in every other N.W.T. community previously under evacuation order have, by now, been cleared to return to their homes.

"After weeks of being away from home, I'm so happy for residents of Hay River, Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Fort Smith, who have returned over the past couple of days," said Environment and Climate Change Minister Shane Thompson during Tuesday's update, adding that, with most South Slave residents able to return home, the territorial government will now pivot from emergency response to recovery.

"It is my hope the residents of Enterprise are not far behind you," he said. "I understand that there's been a long summer of evacuations for many of you, including residents who have had to evacuate more than once."

Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson said she's hopeful this year's intense wildfire season, while destructive, will help make the community more resilient in the face of future disasters.

"We now have a natural firebreak surrounding us that will all but ensure we are protected from wildfires for decades," she said. "Forestry and farming opportunities will arise from the ashes to spur our economy. We have developed plans for mitigation that protect people and property through the impacts of climate change."

Kátł'odeeche First Nation Chief April Martel said the primary concerns for her community now are getting homes and community buildings cleaned up before winter – even as the traditional hunting, gathering and fishing season begins – and finding support for community members who will struggle with trauma related to the wildfires.

She also plans to lobby for more federal support for communities like hers that are bound to face more natural disasters fuelled by climate change in the coming years.

"Climate change is a big thing – I always talk about climate change – and I hope the government is on the same page because climate change is affecting communities all over," Martel said.

"I have a voice and I will use it to advocate, to make sure that everyone is well taken care of, that federal policies adjust for our needs, for the needs of the people of the Northwest Territories."


The South Slave Region will remain under a state of emergency due to wildfires until at least Oct. 2, the territorial government announced on Wednesday.

This marks the second time the Government of the Northwest Territories has extended the state of emergency since it was first declared in mid-August. The order was renewed for the first time on Aug. 29.

"A territorial state of emergency was declared on August (15) and here we are a month later," Jay Boast, information officer with the territory's Emergency Management Organization, said during the update Tuesday.

"With the fire conditions as they currently are in the South Slave (Region,) it was felt that it was prudent." Top Stories

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