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N.W.T. gov't extends registration deadline for flights back to Fort Smith and Hay River

An aerial shot shared on Facebook by the Fort Smith Protective Services on Sept. 3. It is looking east down Highway 5 toward Fort Smith, N.W.T.   (Submitted by Adam McNab - image credit)
An aerial shot shared on Facebook by the Fort Smith Protective Services on Sept. 3. It is looking east down Highway 5 toward Fort Smith, N.W.T. (Submitted by Adam McNab - image credit)

Residents planning to fly back to Hay River, Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Fort Smith in the N.W.T. once evacuation orders lift now have a bit more time to register for flights.

The registration deadline, originally 8 p.m. Thursday, has now been extended to 5 p.m. Friday. Phone lines will be open until 10 p.m. Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, with residents asked to call 1-888-383-6649 or email disasterassistance@gov.nt.ca.

The N.W.T. Department of Municipal and Community Affairs made that announcement late Thursday afternoon during a wildfire news conference. Our live updates from that news conference are below.

Hay River and Kátł'odeeche First Nation are still anticipating the return of residents as early as Sunday, while Fort Smith is looking at Monday. Essential workers have already begun to return to those communities.

Enterprise's eventual return date has not yet been set.

Meantime, firefighters continue to battle the nearby wildfires that are still out of control.

A map of the fire perimeter in the Hay River Corridor and the Katlodeeche First Nation Reserve in N.W.T., Sept. 13, 2023. The lighter shaded area shows where fire burned in May 2023.
A map of the fire perimeter in the Hay River Corridor and the Katlodeeche First Nation Reserve in N.W.T., Sept. 13, 2023. The lighter shaded area shows where fire burned in May 2023.

A map of the fire perimeter in the Hay River Corridor and the Kátł'odeeche First Nation Reserve on Wednesday. The lighter shaded area shows where fire burned in May 2023. (N.W.T. Fire)

Fire information officer Mike Westwick said Thursday morning that there was no significant growth of the fire on Wednesday, as heavy smoke helped keep temperatures down and kept more moisture in the area.

He was anticipating warmer conditions on Thursday, with winds that could push the fire north a bit.

The CBC's April Hudson was liveblogging Thursday's news conference. Updates appear in descending order, from newest to oldest.  

4:59 p.m.: The territorial government intends to continue these news conferences next week, with one scheduled for Monday and one for Thursday.

4:57 p.m.: In closing remarks, Premier Caroline Cochrane says there have been many calls for a review of the government's response to this wildfire season. "We absolutely intend to learn from this experience and ensure we're well prepared for these types of emergencies in the future," she says.

4:55 p.m.: Jay Boast with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs says 2,225 people have flown back to Yellowknife and 6,587 vehicles have been recorded crossing the Deh Cho Bridge. It's hard to know exactly how many people have returned to the Yellowknife area, but Boast says the numbers appear to line up with how many people left.

4:50 p.m.: If you've had trouble accessing the N.W.T. government's website, Finance Minister Wawzonek says there have been a number of sites across the country affected by this. The N.W.T.'s chief information officer is involved. It's one of the reasons why the government has extended the deadline to register for a flight back to South Slave communities. As of this time in the news conference, government employees reported being able to access the website again.

4:48 p.m.: Enterprise Mayor Michael St-Amour says his council is looking at "all options" for people who lost their homes in the wildfire. Right now, anything is possible, including interim housing and local hotels, he says.

4:46 p.m.: N.W.T. Medical Director Claudia Kraft says some extended care patients could start coming back to the N.W.T. within a few days.

4:44 p.m.: Addressing a question about re-entry to Enterprise, Mayor Michael St-Amour says they started working on a plan a couple days ago but put it on pause for a bit. They're going to take another look Friday night, but, since much of the community was destroyed by wildfire, re-entry will be tricky.

4:42 p.m.: About 700 people have registered for flights back to South Slave communities, the N.W.T. government says.

4:36 p.m.: N.W.T. RCMP Cpl. Matt Halstead says fines range up to $3,000 for people flying drones over wildfires. Drones can ground planes, which have to fly quite low to do firefighting activities. Halstead says he's heard concerns from N.W.T. Fire about people flying drones where they shouldn't.

4:33 p.m.: Westwick says he has a general message for everyone who has returned to North and South Slave communities: These wildfires will need to be managed until the snow falls. None of the communities that have returned or are returning are risk-free, and the landscape will have changed dramatically in a lot of areas. "This is going to be a trauma that a lot of people face together," he said.

4:31 p.m.: Fire information officer Mike Westwick says crews successfully did "critical work" to increase safety of Hay River and surrounding area, including a successful ignition operation. But in the coming days, as people return, they should expect fire activity on the east side of the river. The Hay River corridor is still secure and defences are holding. Over in Enterprise, crews still have work to do to address remaining hotspots.

4:28 p.m.: Jay Boast, giving an update on behalf of the Emergency Management Organization, says the territory is extending the timeline to register for re-entry flights to Hay River, Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Fort Smith by two hours. Residents need to register by 10 p.m. Thursday by calling 1-888-383-6649 or by emailing disasterassistance@gov.nt.ca.

4:26 p.m.: Macdonald says the community recreation centre in Fort Smith is being turned into a welcome centre for re-entry, with information for residents and mental health supports.

4:24 p.m.: Jay Macdonald, the deputy mayor of Fort Smith, said the town is still working toward Monday, Sept. 18, as the proposed date of return. He says the fire is still actively burning in some areas but there has been good progress in the fight against it. For now, some businesses are reopening or starting to reopen in the coming days but there are still limited services.

4:20 p.m.: Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson says her council is meeting Friday to review the establishment of essential services. If all goes well, re-entry for the general public will proceed as planned. For now, essential workers began returning Wednesday and are helping to get mechanical systems working again, cleaning around the community and ordering necessary supplies.

4:16 p.m.: Kátł'odeeche Chief April Martel says the First Nation is still working on its re-entry plan, and she's been talking with federal ministers including Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu about supports for the First Nation, which is almost through its third evacuation in a year and a half.

4:11 p.m.: Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek says the wildfires all but wiped out the N.W.T. government's expected operating surplus — down to $5 million, whereas before it was in excess of $100 million. It's likely going to take several years for the territory to see reimbursement from the federal government for some of the costs.

4:08 p.m.: Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson says people coming home to South Slave communities should prepare themselves for the risk of returning — communities are still threatened by wildfires and aren't fully safe.