Alberta, N.W.T. premiers advise wildfire evacuees 'not to return home'

Officials in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith have repeatedly told residents to either stay away, get out — or both. 'If you care about your homes, community, and the people working day and night fighting these fires, please leave,' said N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane.

Alberta, N.W.T. premiers advise wildfire evacuees 'not to return home'
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Alberta and the Northwest Territories are advising residents to leave the territory and return after the wildfires near Yellowknife and the surrounding area are under control.

"The wildfire situation in the territory and around Yellowknife is deeply concerning," said Alberta Premier Danielle Smith in a joint conference with N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane on August 25.

"We've just had an opportunity to meet some residents of the N.W.T. — mostly from outside Yellowknife — who had to leave everything behind," said Smith, who praised Cochrane for demonstrating a "true test of leadership in times of crisis and since the evacuation." 

"It's tough what the residents of the N.W.T. are going through," said Cochrane, adding that two-thirds (68%) of the territory's population has been evacuated.

"Many people in the north have never left the north," she said.

Delaney Poitras of Fort Smith, N.W.T., decamped her home on August 12 to be with loved ones in Hay River as emergency personnel combatted the blaze near her community. But again, she bolted as Hay River received an urgent evacuation order the following day.

"I've never been evacuated in my life, and to do it twice in 24 hours, it was scary," she told the CBC from a temporary evacuation centre in Leduc, Alberta.

With an out-of-control wildfire at the outskirts of Yellowknife (15 kilometres) and multiple RCMP investigations into two attempted arsons within the city last week, the territory and local law enforcement do not want to take any chances.

As of 7 p.m. on August 23, failure to comply with an evacuation order constitutes a breach of the Emergency Management Act, as first reported by Cabin Radio.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Matt Halstead said those who contravene the act now could face up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine. 

Rebel News reached Halstead for comment, where he confirmed, "The Northwest Territories RCMP have not laid any charges under the Emergency Management Act, and this act has not been relied on to arrest anyone."

"The fine and year in jail are the potential punishments listed in the N.W.T Emergency Management Act. These are things that could potentially happen if a person were charged under the act and found guilty in court," he clarified.

Officials in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith have repeatedly appealed for residents to either stay away, get out — or both.

Yellowknife and its roughly 20,000 inhabitants have mostly been evacuated from the capital as of August 18 — two days after the territory declared a state of emergency.

"All non-essential persons present within the community boundaries […] must immediately evacuate that area," reads the evacuation orders. 

Over the weekend, the wildfire threatening Hay River moved from eight kilometres away to 1.5 kilometres from the town's centre. 

A Google satellite image of the area revealed "significant damage" along Patterson Road and Paradise Gardens, located south of the town. Wildfire officials have yet to confirm how many structures were lost in the blaze.

The conditions forced the Canadian Armed Forces to fly out the remaining gas station and grocery store workers in town as part of the incident management team.

An undisclosed number of residents may have stayed behind, but those numbers are not yet known as of writing.

"When these fires get rolling, they form a wall. It's traumatizing for anyone who has had to escape that," said Smith. "I think it's unwise to try and tempt fate [by staying]."

"We are emphasizing [those who] are not essential workers […] helping with the fires, grocery stores, or gas stations, to leave the N.W.T," said Cochrane.

"People have stayed behind with every fire we've had, protecting their homes and communities. But they put not only themselves at risk but also our firefighters at risk," she said.

In Fort Smith, crews continue to battle an out-of-control wildfire — 3.1 kilometres from the town — that has worsened amid an ongoing heat wave and blustery winds, according to a technical update released on Sunday.

Halstead told reporters last week that the amended orders will likely have the most impact on roadblocks should some evacuees try to return home at this juncture.

"There are quite a few, not so much on the Hay Riverside but definitely in the Yellowknife area," said Jeffrey Edison, acting assistant deputy minister for regional operations at the Department of Infrastructure.

He contends some from other communities came to Yellowknife for food while others came to check their properties. "One is too many because you're taking up a lot of time, and there's a lot of risk in that."

"When the fire hits the community, our first responders and firefighters stop fighting it because they must focus on protecting people. And then we get in trouble because homes [burn down]," added Cochrane.

"If you care about your homes, community, and the people working day and night fighting these fires, please leave."

According to Halstead, the RCMP intends to "rely on the enforcement authorities that contribute to public safety as opposed to laying charges against everyone that contravenes the Act."

"This is not a shift in our approach, and these are powers that police have had access to […] since the beginning. In terms of the people that are here, nothing is going to change how we're interacting with them," he said.

They have the ability to request people provide information about their status as essential workers when the RCMP interacts with them and, in cases of criminality, the ability to connect people who have been arrested and charged with evacuation support and transportation.

"The enforcement authorities we have been relying on are the lawful authority to prevent residents from returning to the evacuated communities," said Halstead.

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