Residents of Hay River will be allowed to go home, but who can return all depends on their current situation.
The Town of Hay River has announced that residents can begin returning home starting today. The announcement was made in consultation between the town; Wesley Steed, incident commander with the Department of Environment and Climate Change (ECC); the community emergency management committee in Hay River and; territorial emergency management organizations.
The evacuation emergency order has been downgraded to an evacuation alert, which allows for people to return. The town stated that conditions are still not without risk, but acknowledged the offsetting impact and risks to residents being away from their homes.
The re-opening is being done in two parts: part one is the resumption of essential services, which began at 12 p.m. on Wednesday. That involved performing inspections and assessments on critical infrastructure, start maintenance on buildings and equipment and allowing essential staff to return before the town re-opens.
Health services, pharmacies, emergency services, utilities, the Hay River Merlyn Carter Airport, fuel services, schools, grocery stores and hotels will be part of the first phase.
The first part of the return is for the general public who have no special health concerns or needs. Those who do return home are being asked to inspect their property. The town suspects that there is no repair should be needed to homes, but residents are being encouraged to ensure interior and exterior surfaces are clean, along with air handlers.
Spoiled food should also be disposed of properly as there has been an increase in bear activity around the town, according to the announcement.
Hot and cold water lines should be flushed out for five minutes to make sure they’re clean; residents may see some initial discolouration when they turn the taps on.
Part two of the return is for those who are in assisted living facilities, in long-term care, those who need chronic illness treatment or those living in public shelters. Their return will happen once the evacuation alert has been fully lifted and community health services have been restored.
Those who can’t return home will be sheltered in locations which have been approved by health service authorities.
The evacuation alert has been put in place for most of the town including Mile 5 and Vale Island. The alert could be lifted if the status of the fire changes – right now, the fire remains out of control. Residents could also be ordered to evacuate again if conditions change.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there is still no reported fire damage within the town, but Steed said during an update on Tuesday afternoon that multiple buildings on the reserve have suffered damage of some kind.
The town stated that a full fire ban remains in effect with no burn permits being issued and no fire pits allowed.
Air Tindi announced Wednesday afternoon that it will be offering free flights to anyone who wants to return to Hay River between May 26 and June 1.
K’atl’odeeche First Nation still waiting
While Hay River residents can start returning, the same can’t be said for the K’atl’odeeche First Nation (KFN). The reserve remains closed and when those who live on the reserve can return is still very much up in the air.
Chief April Martel said it could be weeks or even months before her members can go home.
“It’s just too dangerous,” she said on Wednesday afternoon. “There are hot spots all over and crews are still working on the fire. We have homes that have been destroyed or damaged by fire or smoke. We haven’t been able to do an proper assessment, we have power lines down, no phone service — it’s not safe.”
A post on the KFN Facebook page outlined what needed to be done before any of its members could return to the reserve. It included getting utilities back up and running, replacing power lines and poles, an environmental hazard assessment, assessments on homes and any damage and road repairs due to heavy equipment impacts.
The Ehdah Cho Store also needs to be given a thorough cleaning to deal with potential toxic waste, the post added.
Martel is asking those who do return to Hay River to stay away from the reserve. She’s ensuring that happens by not letting anyone past the barricade at the reserve entrance without first showing proper identification.
She also said security will be increased around the reserve.
“The only people allowed on the reserve are those from Northland Utilities and ECC (Department of Environment and Climate Change),” she said. “We’re asking people be respectful of our membership and let the crews do their jobs.
KFN members who live in town are allowed to go home and other members can join them if there is room. Members can also stay with family or friends in town, but hotel stays, gas and food for those going home won’t be covered by KFN unless it has been pre-authorized.
-with files from James McCarthy