With wildfire evacuations the ‘new norm’, Hay River prepares

Helicopter works on wildfire near Hay River, July 2015
A helicopter supports fire crews working near Hay River in July 2015. NWT Fire photo
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A wildfire season that involves evacuations and road closures is the ‘reality of the time’ and Hay River residents should be prepared says the town’s assistant senior administrative officer.

“We can expect wildfires of significant size and evacuations, or potential evacuations, so I think that it’s the new norm of acceptance under emergency preparedness,” says Glenn Smith.

Hay River’s response to flooding is a ‘well-oiled machine’, Smith says, so the town is now using their resources to plan for how the town will adapt to wildfires.

This season’s Northern Alberta wildfires have already forced the closure of Highway 1 south of Enterprise for several days and has prompted firefighters to prepare for a fire moving north from Steen River to cross the border into the NWT.

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In an updated mass evacuation response plan, the town of Hay River has identified Yellowknife as the primary evacuation location. Residents would evacuate by road, or via the Merlyn Carter airport if road access is cut off.

The town will communicate with residents using their Facebook page, local radio stations, by going door-to-door and sending out emails using their emergency alert service.

Smith says residents should know about the different phases of an evacuation – warning, evacuation, hosting, return to community – and prepare the items they would need should an evacuation occur.

Evacuating by aircraft (baggage is limited, usually to one bag per person:
• Climate appropriate clothing;
• Extra keys (for home and vehicles);
• Cash;
• Special items like prescription medications and infant care products;
• Important documents like prescriptions, insurance documents, etc. ; and
• A copy of your household emergency plan and important contact information.
If evacuating by road, pack the following, in addition to above items: 
• Water (at least 2 liters per person);
• Non-perishable food (canned goods, energy bars, dried fruit);
• Crank or battery-powered flashlight (and extra batteries);
• Crank or battery powered radio;
• First-Aid kit;
• Blankets;
• Basic tools (handsaw, hatchet or ax);
• Waterproof matches;
• Candles; and
• A full tank of gas (maybe a jerry can of gas depending on the distance to the

The plan also goes over if and how pets and livestock can be evacuated. If evacuating by plane, residents won’t be able to bring their pets and must either let them out or leave them in their home with a note for emergency workers. If evacuating by road, residents can bring pets and livestock however they won’t be allowed in reception centres so other arrangements must be made.

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“We believe there is a strong plan and good support groups to execute,” Smith says of the plan, which is in draft form but will be shared with residents soon. “The other thing for citizens is to go to our website…and look through our preparedness information.”

READ MORE: Town of Hay River Emergency Preparedness Information

The town’s emergency response plan has also been updated this May and Smith says the town is working on getting the word out about these plans at meetings and events. They are also working on strategic signage to communicate information about road closures and fire danger, how to advertise smoke advisories and a wildfire protection plan.

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