Northwest Territories authorities have reclassified the wildfires that forced Yellowknife residents to evacuate as “being held,” though they say the area is still not safe for citizens to return home, while the legislature has increased spending to suppress the blazes amid soaring costs.
NWT is working on the details of a re-entry plan for Yellowknife, including the timeline, but said essential workers such as health care employees and grocery clerks will be the first to return to ensure the capital city is functional and safe. Fires continue to threaten Hay River on the south shore of Great Slave Lake.
NWT classifies fires as “being held” when, given currently committed resources, it is unlikely that a blaze will spread beyond its existing or predetermined boundaries in light of prevailing or forecasted conditions.
Jay Boast, a NWT government spokesperson, stressed that evacuated residents should not try to return until the territory gives them the green light.
“It is not time now,” he said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “People will be turned away.”
NWT on Aug. 16 ordered roughly 22,000 people from Yellowknife and neighbouring areas to evacuate by Aug. 18. Residents in Hay River and other communities south of Great Slave Lake were ordered to leave their homes prior to the Yellowknife exodus, meaning roughly 70 per cent of NWT’s population is currently displaced.
The blaze threatening Yellowknife remains roughly 15 kilometres away from the municipal boundary. In Hay River, fire is roughly one kilometre away from the airport and, over the weekend, burned structures near the community. Essential workers, save for fightfighters, evacuated out of Hay River on Friday as the blaze exploded.
Meanwhile, NWT expects to exceed its annual budget for wildfire suppression by a factor of five, and additional costs tied to the disaster, such as those tied to the mass evacuation, continue to soar. Most displaced residents are in Alberta.
NWT legislators on Monday unanimously supported a spending bill that would add $75-million to the territory’s effort to suppress wildfires. They also voted to delay the territory’s general election from Oct. 3 to Nov. 14.
The additional spending was proposed by Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, who said on social media over the weekend that NWT expects to spend $100-million on wildfire suppression costs this year, compared with the roughly $20-million politicians previously budgeted.
The expanded purse will not cover all the costs tied to the disaster. Ms. Wawzonek, during Monday’s legislative sitting, said she expects further supplementary appropriation bills to cover other expenses, such as the cost to evacuate and shelter roughly 25,000 evacuated residents.
The territorial government is spending roughly $10-million a week to fight fires, Ms. Wawzonek told the legislative assembly during the remote session. The government planned to ask the assembly for additional cash to fight fires prior to the disaster expanding in August, which has since caused costs grow “astronomically,” she said.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about advancing payments available under the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements to NWT, but was reluctant to promise cash beyond Canada’s existing programs out of “fairness for all jurisdictions.”
Ms. Cochrane added: “If he opens it up, then he has every jurisdiction that faces fire asking for the same amount.”
Canada’s DFAA does not cover the cost of forest firefighting, except where blazes pose a risk to “built-up” areas. It also does not cover expenses that are eligible for insurance. Expenses tied to evacuation, transportation, emergency food, shelter and clothing are covered under the cost-sharing program.
Joanna Kanga, a spokesperson for federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Harjit Sajjan, confirmed in a statement that provinces and territories can request advance or interim payments from Ottawa.
Service Canada, Ms. Kanga said, is also “mobilizing to support workers in impacted communities, which will help workers get the information they need to access benefits as quickly as possible.” The federal government is encouraging all workers affected by wildfires to apply for Employment Insurance as soon as possible, even if they do not have a record of employment, she added.