Northwest Territories officials are using roadblocks to turn back Yellowknife residents who are attempting to return home despite the city still being under a state of emergency.
All but about 1,600 of Yellowknife’s 20,000 residents have left the community due to the continued threat of wildfires that have caused the evacuation of a number of northern communities.
The government of the N.W.T clarified its evacuation order Wednesday, telling the non-essential personnel who remain that they need to leave and those who think the danger is over to stay away. The fact that the fires haven’t progressed over the past few days has prompted some to believe the threat is over.
“We are aware that some non-essential residents are not following these orders. Perhaps this is because there’s a feeling that the emergency is over or the threat is not real and you are eager to return home,” said Jennifer Young, an information officer with the territory’s Emergency Management Organization.
“The risk remains significant and the updated evacuation orders reflect that non-essential people that still remain in evacuated communities need to leave and non-essential people cannot return at this time.”
Young said the order is enforceable by the RCMP. She said there are currently staffed checkstops at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 2 and at Highway 3 at Kilometre 272.
“Those who refuse to follow these instructions will be reported to the RCMP. None of the public has returned because we are turning them away at different checkpoints as per the orders.”
RCMP spokesman Cpl. Matt Halstead said the Emergency Management Act does set out a range of consequences of up to a year in custody and a fine of up to $5,000. But he said discretion is being used and no charges have been laid yet.
“We’re not really looking to have to use that. This is about public safety,” he said.
“It’s not safe to return here, so when we’re talking about enforcement of this, we’re talking about assisting and enforcing the roadblocks that are in place.”
Young said she didn’t have numbers about how many people have tried to return to Yellowknife, but Jeffrey Edison, the acting assistant deputy infrastructure minister, said it’s significant.
“I do know that there are quite a few, not so much on the Hay River side at the blockade but definitely on the Yellowknife area, we are getting consistent numbers throughout the day of people trying to get back into Yellowknife,” Edison said.
He said even one “is too many” because it could slow down the arrival of essential workers through checkpoints and those bringing in fuel and supplies.
Fires are in holding patterns near Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, but a fire information officer said it’s still dangerous.
“I know the big news everyone is looking for is when we can come home. The answer is we need to be patient,” said Jessica Davey-Quantick.
“Many of these fires of concern haven’t moved for several days. That’s really good news, but it does not mean the situation is safe. It wasn’t safe when we left … and it’s not safe now.”
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2023.