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Essential workers called back to Yellowknife; unclear when public can return 

The City of Yellowknife has called back essential workers to prepare for the return of Yellowknife’s nearly 22,000 residents. 

When that can happen is still unclear, but Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said it’s likely to be at least five more days. 

Monday afternoon, fire officials said the wildfire burning between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀ is now “being held” 

The fire forced the evacuation of the capital city nearly two weeks ago. 

The territory established a five-phase re-entry plan, and the return of workers is in the third phase. 

Alty spoke to The Trailbreaker and CBC News Network Monday morning to explain upcoming steps of re-entry. City Manager Sheila Bassi-Kellet also spoke to The Trailbreaker. 

The interviews have been edited for clarity. 

Mayor Alty, can you shed some light on the fire being classified as “held”? Can you tell us why it isn’t safe for people to return at this time? 

Alty: When they say it’s being held, it’s that they have the current resources and sufficient suppression action that they feel that the wildfire is not likely to spread beyond its current boundary under the current forecasts.

So then we can start our re-entry plan. The territorial government has a five-phase re-entry plan. Phase one is that the fire is being held. So check, that’s done. Phase two is to determine if any buildings have been impacted by the fire, critical ones like the hospital or the water treatment plant and check, that’s done because our buildings weren’t impacted. So now we’re on phase three, which is what we started yesterday by calling critical and essential employees back, like water and sewer, and garbage. The territorial government will have to call their critical staff back, like the hospital and airports. Then we’re also working through calling critical businesses, stuff like the grocery stores. 

After everybody returns back then we’re into phase four, which is setting all the services back up. Once the services are back up, then we can get to phase five, which is inviting everyone back. So it’s a glimmer of hope, but we don’t have a date on that.

One of the other challenges I should mention is the fires in the South Slave are still quite serious. After our news conference yesterday about the fires being held in Yellowknife, we got notice that Highway 1 is closed due to the fire. So I want to stress that folks aren’t going to be coming back if the highways are unsafe. It’s just a complication to this whole plan.

A woman stands outside looking at the camera.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty laid out more details of the city’s slow return on Tuesday morning. (Rebecca Alty/Facebook)

I want to clarify something that you said there. Have you called back some of the essential municipal services? 

Bassi-Kellet: Actually we were starting to reach out on Sunday evening to some of our staff. We’d love to get everybody back so that the city is 100 per cent up and running with all of our rec services and everything, but we’re not doing that. We’re focusing on our water and sewer, roads and sidewalks. We know that garbage collection is going to be absolutely critical as everybody comes back. People are going to come back to some interesting science projects in their fridges, and they’re going to need to really clean out their homes overall. 

And then what we’re doing is we’re reaching out to critical businesses. We’ve asked them to identify out of all of their staff who’s critical to get up and running. So for example, Rochdi’s [Independent Grocer] says out of 150-160 employees, they’re bringing back 25, so that they’ll be able to get up and running as quickly as possible with the bare bones. 

I want to ask about municipal services. You mentioned that you’ve already called them back. How many people is the city going to bring back in those essential roles? 

Bassi-Kellet: We have approximately half of our water and sewer crew, and our roads and sidewalks crew has been here throughout. They’ve been absolutely critical and working on a lot of the defences for the city in terms of the sprinkler ring and a lot of the other factors. We’re probably looking at about 15 to 18 on top of the staff that we have here on the ground. 

Any idea of when they’ll be returning to the city? 

Bassi-Kellet: We’re asking everyone to come back as quickly as we can. Some opted to drive out. That’ll take them a little longer than someone who perhaps was able to fly down with their families or fly down by themselves and come back. That’s definitely a factor Mayor Alty mentioned as well, that it’s not just the safety of Yellowknife, but the safety of the entire route home. 

So are you saying that if they packed up and left in the wee hours this morning, they could be returning sometime today? 

Bassi-Kellet: That’s an ambitious driving schedule. There’s some people that are hitting the road. I mean, they’ve got to pack up and extract themselves from where they are. We know that the [Government of the N.W.T.] has got scheduled flights, and we’re working with them on that to make sure that we have our critical staff on that list.

So is this something that we could see completed by maybe the end of the week? 

Bassi-Kellet: We’re very hopeful. But again, I want to say that the planning window can be a little bit different than what’s reality on the ground. Knowing people are driving, we want to make sure that, for example, there’s arrangements for fuel along the way. We know that, terribly, there’s no opportunity to gas up in Enterprise. We know that hotels are packed with a lot of people, so we want to make sure that the driving conditions are supported. And that’s something that we’re working on with GNWT. 

Smiling woman in a park.
Yellowknife city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett. (Angela Gzowski/City of Yellowknife)

Once we have all of the essential workers and essential businesses back, how long until you’re ready to invite back the general public?

Bassi-Kellet: So we will provide advice to [Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane] Thompson when we’re ready. He may lift [the evacuation order] altogether, or he may just put things onto an evacuation alert.

But under that evacuation alert, the general public should be able to come back?

Bassi-Kellet: That’s my understanding.

Is that a process for days or weeks? 

Alty: It’s days, but it’s not one or two days. So it’s still too early, stay tuned on that. 

The one thing I would say for residents that, if you are looking for something to do to prepare to come home, we won’t have all services fully operational. The grocery stores are going to be up and running, but if we have 20,000 people coming back and wanting to do groceries that first day, you may want to consider bringing three days’ worth of perishables with you. 

How are you going to handle that infrastructure piece to make sure you don’t have cars parked for kilometres on that one highway?

Alty: The territorial government is working on that piece because they will be repatriating people by air and they are also working on that highway piece to make sure that it’s a bit smoother.

I think it will be a little different this time just even in talking to residents. Some folks will probably wait a day or two after it’s announced just to let the congestion unwind. 

The one thing I would really stress is please don’t come back now, if you are not a critical worker. We do have checkpoints up and if your name’s not on that list, you will be turned away. So don’t waste your gas money trying to come back.

Will you be staggering people’s returns? 

Alty: Not for the vehicle traffic. The airlifts will be a little different. We’ve got to make sure that the essential services like shelters are set up before folks who are using shelters are on the planes and coming back home. So there will be a bit of work with the territorial government and stay tuned on those flights.

What do you foresee being the biggest challenge in all of this?

Alty: Some people car-pooled down, which is great, but now their ride’s somewhere else and so they will need a flight back. So I think we’re going to see more people needing flights back than going down, and making sure that system’s in place.

What about people who are already out of money? 

Alty: That is a challenging part. So the territorial government is opening the portal for compensation. So I encourage residents to take a look there.

The evacuation centres do have some supports available. Continue to use that and reaching out. There are a lot of resources but sometimes it’s hard to find them.

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