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'We'll get them home': N.W.T evacuees reassured financial supports in the works

Crews on Tuesday continued to battle wildfires that have forced seven out of every 10 Northwest Territories residents — or about 30,000 people — from their homes. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)
Crews on Tuesday continued to battle wildfires that have forced seven out of every 10 Northwest Territories residents — or about 30,000 people — from their homes. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)

The N.W.T. government hastened Tuesday to reassure tens of thousands of displaced residents that everyone who fled under evacuation orders will get a helping hand — and financial assistance — to get home.

"We got folks out, we'll get them home — either by air or by ground — and we certainly won't leave anyone behind," Caroline Wawzonek, N.W.T.'s finance minister, said during its evening  wildfire update.

Discussions about money dominated the daily update, which involved multiple politicians, including Premier Caroline Cochrane, territorial government representatives and the mayors of several impacted communities as well as wildfire and safety officials and First Nations leaders.

A key focus was to clarify that plans are underway to assist people who people who had driven themselves to safety and incurred personal costs for food and accommodations — a turnaround from the message that was delivered during Monday night's update.

During Monday's briefing, a government official said the territorial government won't provide financial assistance to evacuees who found their own accommodations. The government also said it won't help cover travel costs for people who left in their own vehicles.

However, on Tuesday night, Wawzonek said the financial need is recognized and the government is working to devise policies and guidelines to ensure that support is fair, reasonable and responsive to the crisis.

"The [N.W.T. government] is going to be as responsive as we need to be to a situation that is clearly evolving and has evolved since last week," she said. "We simply can't design policies, programs and guidelines for a situation that we haven't faced before."

Wildfires burn through government coffers

Crews on Tuesday continued to battle wildfires that have forced seven out of every 10 Northwest Territories residents — or about 30,000 people — from their homes.

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty spent Tuesday flying over the wildfire burning about 15 kilometres northwest of the capital, which is home to 20,000 people and one of multiple communities under an evacuation order.

The flight also gave her a bird's-eye view of the firebreaks, control lines and retardant areas that have been created to stop the blaze if it begins advancing toward the city.

"It's one thing to see the fire area and defensive work on maps. But it is another thing to see it for real," Alty said.

The fire still poses a serious threat to the community, she added, meaning residents shouldn't expect a quick return to their homes.

In acknowledging the financial impact on residents and businesses as a result of the wildfire and the evacuation, Alty also noted the drain on municipal finances and implored the federal and territorial governments to help.

"Disaster financial assistance is definitely needed in our territory," she said.

Territory politicians will be meeting on Monday to discuss two issues: the upcoming territorial election and the costs being incurred by the wildfires.

When asked how much money this crisis is costing, Wawzonek said she'd be providing that information to territorial politicians before sharing it with the public.

"That's the million dollar question," she added with a smile. "But it's a little more than that."

In an interview with CBC Northbeat Tuesday evening, fire information officer Mike Westwick said work to deter the fires from moving toward communities was proceeding well but the unpredictable nature of wildfires means the fight is far from over.

"Weather is always the number one concern when you're working in wildfire," he said.

"Hot dry conditions in the South Slave region are top of my mind, for sure."

Westwick said firefighting work at Fort Smith, on the Alberta-N.W.T. boundary, is expected to be particularly challenging given temperatures approaching 30 C.

Westwick says firefighting work at Fort Smith, on the Alberta-N.W.T. boundary, is expected to be particularly challenging given temperatures approaching 30 C.

"The situation remains serious across all our communities with active fires," Westwick said.

Winds a worry in Fort Smith, Hay River

He said flames were about four kilometres from Fort Smith and that winds were threatening to move the fire close while crews scrambled to cut the forest down to the dirt to deprive flames of fuel.

"There's more than 250 people assigned and dozens of helicopters to that Fort Smith area," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Northwest Territories' emergency management organization says there have been reports of people returning to Fort Smith, or planning to do so, despite the risk.

Jennifer Young said residents will be stopped at established checkpoints and asked to verify whether they are an essential worker of an evacuated community before being let through.

Fort Smith's 2,500 residents have been out for more than a week.

Flames remained about eight kilometres from Hay River, on the south end of Great Slave Lake, and Westwick said they expect a challenging week there of hotter and drier conditions and shifting winds.

"All of those winds we would expect to push the fire away from a river, but could cause fire growth, which always makes things more challenging," he said.

Logistics around returning

Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, at a federal cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, said the government is in discussions already with Northwest Territories on how to help return evacuees safely to the territory.

"It's still a dangerous situation," he said, but added talks about what it will take are ongoing.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said for First Nations, the federal government is to fund eligible evacuation and recovery costs

The territorial government has provided the following links for residents: