Officials continue to iron out Yellowknife re-entry plans, even though return has been put on hold

A firefighter near a wildfire hotspot in Hay River, posted on Facebook by N.W.T. Fire on Wednesday. N.W.T. Fire information officer Mike Westwick said there is potential for serious firefighting challenges in Hay River, N.W.T., on Friday because of strong winds expected to blow the fire toward the community.   (Submitted by N.W.T. Fire - image credit)

Although strong winds are complicating the return of essential workers to Yellowknife, officials said they're still working ahead on the plan's next steps.

For example, residents can expect details in the coming days about registering for flights that will return them to the Northwest Territories capital said Jay Boast, an emergency management organization information officer with the territory's Department of Municipal and Community Affairs.

As of Thursday, the return of essential workers was put on pause — except for health-care workers travelling to Stanton Territorial Hospital by plane. Gusting winds are expected to whip up fires along Highway 1 near the border with Alberta, and a closure of that portion of the road is likely from Friday to Sunday, the territory has said.

Boast said the government will continue to bring back essential health-care workers because health-care is the backbone of the territory's essential services. The city said it would not bring back other essential workers by plane because road closures mean food and gas can't come North either.

Yellowknife officials did not have a number for how many essential workers were being recalled, but city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellet said the list of essential services and personnel includes those who help run water and sewage services, grocery stores, pharmacies, and transportation, as well as people who care for the children of essential workers.

Boast told CBC News in an email earlier on Thursday that an updated list of essential workers is provided to staff at the checkpoint heading into the city.

As of Thursday morning, he said, the southern barricade was at Steen River, Alta., though it moves depending on fire conditions. Another is set up at kilometer 272, between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., and a third is at the intersection of Highway 1 and 2 at Enterprise, N.W.T. All, said Boast, are staffed 24 hours a day.

Fire crews are bracing for tough days ahead — particularly in the South Slave region.

The strong, gusting winds hampering the re-entry to Yellowknife are coming from the southwest and are expected to gust up to 40 kilometres per hour near Fort Smith, N.W.T., and up to 60 kilometres per hour around Hay River, N.W.T., on Friday.

The wind could blow fires toward both of those communities.

Once that wind dies down, though, there could be a return to more seasonal conditions.

Below are live updates from Thursday afternoon's press conference. Updates appear in descending order, from newest to oldest.

5:16 p.m.: Premier Caroline Cochrane is making final remarks.

She says: "I know it's hard, I know we all want answers, but again we want to stress … we're going to get you back, as soon as it's safe to do so."

5:13 p.m.: In response to that, Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson says her heart almost stopped. "I'd be very happy if the snow started flying tomorrow," she says, adding that there is no predicting what is going to happen next.

"Be patient," she says.

5:10 p.m.: CBC North reporter Liny Lamberink asks how likely it is that Hay River and Fort Smith, N.W.T., evacuees won't be able to go home until the snow falls.

The first response to this comes from Municipal and Community Affairs spokesperson Jay Boast, who says it's a difficult question to answer. "Trying to predict this season's fire activity, we can follow the models, but what it means for us … that has been very difficult."

N.W.T. Fire information officer Mike Westwick adds that fire crews are very good at establishing perimeters and working to make communities safe.

5:02 p.m.: Asked why the public might see less fire activity on satellite imagery software like Fire Information Resources for Management Systems (FIRMS), compared to the territory's own helicopter surveys, N.W.T. Fire information officer Mike Westwick says that FIRMS is less sensitive than the territory's tools.

4:58 p.m.: Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek says the income disruption program has started issuing deposits.

That program was launched in response to the evacuations of Hay River and Kátł'odeeche First Nation in May.

The travel subsidy program has received "a number" of applications and "some deposits" have been made, she says.

4:52 p.m.: N.W.T. Fire information officer Mike Westwick says the territory is now able to give a bit of a heads up about potential challenges as people return.

An example of this is how the public was told, ahead of time, that Highway 1 is expected to close from this Friday to Sunday.

Westwick says they're able to do that thanks to forecasts and a meteorologist they're working with. They'll be monitoring wind direction, nearby fires and the level of moisture in the air, among other things.

4:50 p.m.: The city doesn't have numbers on hand right now for how many essential workers will be returning to Yellowknife, but city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellet is able to paint a bit of a picture. She says one grocery store the city contacted has a total of 150 employees, and it wants to bring back 30 of them to start.

4:49 p.m.: Claudiane Samson, from Radio-Canada, asks the city why more essential workers can't be flown in to expedite the re-entry process.

Mayor Rebecca Alty, responding in French, points out that when the road is closed, other services stop too, like bringing in food and gas. She says those things are needed to support the return of the essential workers.

4:46 p.m.: Eric Bowling from the Inuvik Drum asks the city how it differentiates businesses that are essential from those that aren't.

Yellowknife city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett gives a rundown of what is considered essential: "Health services are number one, pharmacy, we have to make sure transportation is here on the ground."

She says water, sewer and solid waste are critical services as well, along with the airport, child care for parents of essential workers, and grocery stores.

4:41 p.m.: N.W.T. Fire information officer Mike Westwick talks about some of the extreme conditions crews faced when the fire overtook Enterprise.

Putting people in front of that kind of fire, "that's not something you do," he says. "We would have put a whole lot of people at risk if we put people in front of that fire, and I just want to make that very clear."

4:40 p.m.: Emily Blake from Cabin Radio asks whether more could have been done to combat the fires in Enterprise, N.W.T.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Shane Thompson says the territory will be reviewing its approach to all the fires that have affected communities in the N.W.T.

4:37 p.m.: Juanita Taylor, a reporter with CBC News, asks what the territory is doing to address the logistical challenges of getting people home by road.

Municipal and Community Affairs spokesperson Jay Boast says people should take the time to plan for that now, and the territory will be putting out some advice.

Jeffrey Edison, with the Department of Infrastructure, says there will not be tankers of gas on the road, but the territory will be making sure gas stations have enough gas. They're also looking at setting up porta potties along the route, and traffic controllers on the Deh Cho Bridge.

4:31 p.m.: Westwick says the Dettah fire has seen some large flare-ups in recent days, and air tankers have been working to calm those down. The fire is still not a threat to the community, he says, clarifying that Dettah residents are evacuated because of the fires threatening Yellowknife, and the challenges they pose to the transportation network.

4:28 p.m.: Mike Westwick, an N.W.T. Fire information officer, says there is potential for serious firefighting challenges in Hay River, N.W.T., on Friday. That's because of strong winds expected to blow the fire toward the community.

4:25 p.m.: Boast says planning for the return to Yellowknife is ongoing. For example, he says the territory is working on a flight registration process for those flying home. He says residents can expect more details about that process in the days to come.

4:24 p.m.: Jay Boast, a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, says health-care staff are allowed to return to Yellowknife by air — despite the paused re-entry plan — because heath care is the foundation of the city's essential services.

4:21 p.m.: Alty says there is still no date yet for Phase 5, which is when non-essential residents will be allowed to return to Yellowknife.

4:20 p.m.: Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty says Wednesday was a tough day, having to pause the return of essential workers because of high winds that are expected to whip up fires along Highway 1. But, she says, staff at Stanton Territorial Hospital are still able to make it back by air.

Alty notes that when Phase 5 begins, the hospital still won't be fully staffed. That would take too much time, she says.

She urges people to be mindful of that, and be patient when they return.

4:18 p.m.: Sangris says the return of evacuees can't be delayed any further. "Let us work hand in hand to find solutions, allocate resources, and expedite the safe return of all evacuated members of Yellowknife."

4:14 p.m.: Sangris opens by saying he's speaking as a chief, and a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, which has been forced to evacuate its traditional homeland. "Our heart aches as we witness the devastation that has unfolded. Displacing our families, disrupting our way of life, and challenging the very core of our existence."

But, he says, the community stands united. "The bonds that connect us as Yellowknives Dene remain unbreakable, regardless of the distance that separates us."

4:13 p.m.: Shane Thompson, the minister of the departments of Environment and Climate Change and Municipal and Community Affairs, says high winds are hampering the re-entry to Yellowknife: "While we are one step closer to going back home, we still have to wait for a little bit longer."

He urged people to respect the current evacuation orders, so that everyone can get home safely.

4:07 p.m.: The press conference has started. We'll be getting opening remarks from a number of people to start, including Chief Edward Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Dettah, N.W.T., Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty and Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson.