The anticipation is palpable at the Yellowknife Co-op, where shelves have been fully stocked in preparation for the return of thousands of residents as an evacuation order is scheduled to be lifted on Wednesday. Justin Nelson, who oversees the grocery store operations in the capacity of a general manager, expresses relief and joy as he contemplates the end of weeks-long separation from the familiar faces of the Yellowknife community.
Although the order’s suspension remains dependent on the status of fire and highway conditions, Mike Westwick, N.W.T.’s wildfire information expert, doesn’t see any forthcoming challenges for Highway 1 that could obstruct the planned return of the townsfolk.
The cool fall breeze swooshed in on Tuesday, bringing with it a few of the essential workers, faces brimming with recognition and excitement, who made their way back to Yellowknife to ensure the city’s readiness for the homecoming of its residents.
The returning task force included grocery store staff, pharmacy personnel, home-heating professionals, along with a handful of taxi drivers and daycare providers, revealed Yellowknife’s city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett. It was back on August 16 that an evacuation directive was issued, forcing 20,000 residents of Yellowknife and nearby First Nation communities of Ndilo and Dettah to leave their homes. This followed a similar order for the inhabitants of Hay River and Fort Smith, who continue to be displaced.
The city of Yellowknife, according to its officials, is making all necessary preparations to support residents as they return to homes full of spoiled victuals stocked in their refrigerators. According to Nelson, the Co-op will be the next stop for most after they check their homes.
While the Co-op is usually bustling with its full force of 160 employees, only 22 currently dot the floor. Strewn with challenges galore, the next few days are anticipated to be torrential, but the prospect of reuniting with friends, families, and neighbours after weeks of separation keeps their spirits buoyed. Nelson eagerly looks forward to welcoming back his children, which signifies the culmination of this ordeal for him.
The retreat of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been staunchly assisting in the Northwest Territories indicates the improved situation, both courtesy of the dipping temperatures and relentless firefighting measures. Although there’s been no call for assistance with return flights to Yellowknife, Jay Boast, an information officer for the NWT Emergency Management Organization, reveals a significant registration of over 2,000 people for re-entry flights.
In spite of the excitement, returning residents have been suggested to brace for a 72-hour self-reliance period upon their homecoming. Kieron Testart, a part of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation emergency operations team, plans to celebrate the end of the long wait with grand banners that welcome the residents and remind them how dearly they were missed.
Testart himself anticipates an emotional reunion with his wife and children, whom he hasn’t seen since the evacuation order. He also acknowledges the changing landscape of Yellowknife, a by-product of the firefighting endeavors that may come as a shock to many. He compares the aftermath, particularly the survival of the boreal forest area reduced to rock, to a lunar surface. He acknowledges that the altered landscape will take some time for people to adjust to.
“The land is our home, and the changes may affect people,” he rightly asserts, underlining the emotional toll the whole event may have on the fellow northerners.