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N.W.T. fires: Essential workers head back early to Yellowknife



Officials in Yellowknife, as well as staff with the Northwest Territories, are getting ready for the start of a mass migration home of wildfire evacuees that’s still on track for Wednesday.


Yellowknife city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, home-heating providers, and even some taxi drivers and daycare providers are on their way back to the city in advance of Sept. 6 — the date announced last week for the lifting of the evacuation order when all city residents will be allowed to return.


“At a very, very high level — a 30,000-foot level — I’d say there’s a third of our evacuees that are returning before our overall evacuation order is lifted,” Bassi-Kellett told an online news conference Monday afternoon.


Jeffrey Edison, acting assistant deputy minister with the Department of Infrastructure, said other essential workers that are coming home early include staff at the city’s airport, like baggage handlers, who will be there for flights that bring evacuees home.


“It’s not who you are, it’s basically the positions you hold,” Edison told the news conference about the people who are being allowed back early.


NWT Emergency Management Organization information officer Jay Boast said over 2,000 people have pre-registered to be re-entry flights, following a call to do so Saturday so the territory would know how many flights they’ll need.


Boast noted Sunday that due to the small number pre-registering in Winnipeg and Whitehorse, only one flight from each of those cities will be planned, which will take off on Thursday. If you’re there and haven’t pre-registered, he said you need to register now.


For returnees who will be driving home, Boast said the territory is preparing for the anticipated influx of traffic on Highway 1 to Yellowknife, including security points to prevent access to Enterprise, a hamlet where community officials have said 80 percent of homes and businesses were destroyed by flames.


Wednesday’s date for the lifting of Yellowknife’s general evacuation order remains contingent on fire and highway conditions, but N.W.T. wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said Monday that no challenges are expected for Highway 1 for the next few days.


He reminded people to drive home carefully.


“Their biggest hazard on their jobsite is your vehicle,” he said.


The evacuation order for Yellowknife and the nearby First Nation communities of Ndilo and Dettah was issued on Aug. 16.


Anyone who is not on the list of essential workers who have been asked to return now has been warned not to try to return early, although RCMP said they haven’t had to turn anyone away and no arrests have been made under the Emergency Management Act.


Some evacuees at seven hotels in Calgary, however, are already on the move after they were informed over the weekend that their rooms would no longer be available.


Officials at Monday’s news conference said Calgary officials are working to find those evacuees other accommodations. 


Residents have already been advised they should prepare to be self-reliant for 72 hours upon their return. 


Bassi-Kellett noted the city is getting ready for people clearing three weeks of food out of their refrigerators.


“We’re ready to roll on that with instructions for people on how they can bring that to the solid waste facility. We’re going to have amnesty days for domestic garbage so people can clean out and get their homes back to the state they should be,” she said.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023.

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