Evacuated Hay River residents head home after 10 days
May 25, 2023
By Ollie Williams and Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporters
“I put my wedding on hold due to the flood last year. We’re planning on getting married next August, and I am not delaying it again.”
Lesley Schnyder isn’t the only Hay River resident who’s becoming tired of lives lived on hold. For the second May in a row, exhausted evacuees are about to head back to their homes in the Northwest Territories community.
Last year’s flood evacuation lasted only a few days. This year, the first evacuees returning to the town on Thursday will have spent more than 10 days away from home because of a nearby wildfire.
The Town of Hay River said on Wednesday that conditions were now safe for residents to begin coming back, though the community will remain on evacuation alert in case the fire returns and a speedy retreat is required.
“I’m glad we’re finally able to return home. This has put a huge financial and emotional strain on everyone,” Schnyder told Cabin Radio on Wednesday, shortly after the town gave the all-clear.
“Some people are still trying to recover from last year’s flood. I’m already loading up my truck and camper with all the stress-shopping my family did.”
But as Air Tindi begins offering free flights home, some people – like those who live on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation’s reserve, or Hay River residents with special healthcare needs – are having to wait longer.
“I think I might just wait on a further update,” said Harvey Moses, who is eager to return home but has a breathing condition that could be made worse by wildfire smoke.
“I’m pretty okay, because the people here are really helping me out,” Moses added, having called Yellowknife’s Super 8 Motel home for the past week.
‘Expected to suck it up’
Schnyder said she and her mother-in-law each have respiratory issues of their own to contend with, and plan to take precautions on their return home.
They are also paying close attention to the town’s warning that another evacuation could be needed if the fire – which continues to burn east of the First Nation – is pushed back toward the communities.
“I’ll be repacking my camper and truck in case we need to leave again,” Schnyder said.
“I’m definitely worried about evacuating again, or that we are trapped due to possible highway closures.”
The ability to return home means an end to the additional expense of living as an evacuee in a separate community, but questions remain about the extent to which more financial support will be forthcoming.
Moses said the financial support he received while in Yellowknife amounted to a $50 gift card to the Yellowknife Co-op, adding that many evacuees seemed “pretty concerned about the lack of funds.”
Posting on Facebook, the Town of Hay River said it was lobbying the N.W.T. government for compensation to be given to residents affected by the wildfire, and had applied for United Way funding to be distributed to evacuees.
“Residents are encouraged to contact insurance providers to access funding available in their policies. Additionally, banks may provide the opportunity to adjust payment schedules,” the town wrote. “More details will be released as soon as they are made available.”
Schnyder said the experience demonstrates the need for “a real plan in place and funding to cover people who are not on income support or Status.”
“I’m tired of people saying that we should have been saving money, or to go to the multiplex for financial assistance,” she said.
“I still haven’t been able to get any gift cards. My savings are gone because I had to pay for this evacuation, and I’m not sure if I can even afford my premiums on my insurance next year, if I go that route.
“So many people are working-class, have debt, are still trying to rebuild from last year, and there’s no help for us. We are expected to suck it up, go more into debt, and try to prepare for the next disaster.”
Ollie Williams and Caitrin Pilkington are Local Journalism Initiative Reporters for Cabin Radio.
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