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As 1,000s return to Yellowknife, other NWT residents await their turn

Fires continue to keep people away from other communities like Hay River and Fort Smith
Heavy smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky in Yellowknife on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. Thousands of Yellowknife residents have returned home this week as a wildfire evacuation order was lifted. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Angela Gzowski

Thousands of people from the Northwest Territories have returned home this week after a wildfire evacuation order was lifted for Yellowknife’s 20,000 residents.

The order for the territorial capital, which also included the First Nation communities of Dettah and N’Dilo, was downgraded Wednesday to an evacuation alert.

“This is something to celebrate, but we have to remember there are still thousands of residents who are still evacuated from their home communities,” Premier Caroline Cochrane said during a media briefing late Thursday.

“The government of the Territories is working hard with its partners to do everything possible to fight these fires, protect your communities and get you home and back to your everyday lives.”

Officials said about 1,000 people, including 630 essential workers, had been flown back to Yellowknife by the end of Wednesday and repatriation flights continued Thursday.

“We are making progress,” said Jamie Fulford, deputy incident commander with the Emergency Management Organization.

The flights will run until Sunday.

About 1,700 vehicles have already returned to the city this week based on an automated traffic count of those that travelled northbound on the Deh Cho Bridge — although officials said it’s difficult to know how many people are in each vehicle.

They had earlier noted that about 7,000 vehicles left the city after the evacuation order came into effect on Aug. 16.

Ernest Betsina, who was sworn in as the chief of Dettah earlier this week, said people have slowly started to return to the community.

“Within the coming days, I look forward to seeing my members again, shaking their hands,” he said.

Betsina said the fire is still smouldering, so residents will need to remain on guard.

There are still thousands of people from Hay River and Fort Smith, who were ordered out days before Yellowknife, that are not able to go back due to wildfires.

Fire officials said there’s still a high level of risk to Hay River, where fire has reached many populated areas and is about 500 metres away from the hospital.

READ ALSO: ‘Welcome home’ sign out for Yellowknife residents after 3 weeks away