'Really good to be home': Return continues for Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Hay River

Flights are continuing to bring back Kátł'odeeche First Nation and Hay River evacuees Sunday as smoky, warm weather continues to hang over the region, and the road to both communities is open.

Kátł'odeeche barricade came down Sunday morning

Yellow school bus and white bus outside of hotel.
Two busses of Kátł'odeeche First Nation community members left from Motel 6 in Grande Prairie Alta. on Sep. 17 (Kátł'odeeche First Nation, Facebook)

Kátł'odeeche First Nation Chief April says residents should be prepared — the return home might be "traumatizing," especially for residents who lost their homes in the fire that destroyed parts of the community this past May.

"It's not going to look the same. It's not going to feel the same. There's going to be more devastation," she said.

The evacuation order for Kátł'odeeche First Nation lifted Sunday morning at 9 a.m., one day after the Town of Hay River reopened to the public.

Residents are travelling to the community today by car, bus and plane. 

Two buses of Kátł'odeeche community members left from Motel 6 in Grande Prairie Alta. on Sunday morning.

Many also left on evacuation flights chartered by the territorial government on Sunday. For those who fly back, Kátł'odeeche is picking up its residents who arrive at the Hay River airport.

A plane on the ground with people disembarking.
A flight transporting evacuees back to the N.W.T. lands at the Hay River airport Sunday morning. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Martel said that the reserve has also provided gas money for members who choose to drive back. An update from the reserve Saturday afternoon said transportation would continue for residents who need it on Monday as well.

"No one will be left behind," the update read.

Residents of Kátł'odeeche First Nation have been told that services in the community like garbage collection, water, will not necessarily be up and running yet when they return home.

The reserve has asked people who are driving home to bring a day or two of food back with them if they're driving, since it will still take some time for the town and reserve to get every service back up to capacity.

According to Martel, Kátł'odeeche will provide hampers of cleaning supplies and grocery hampers to residents. She said they are still getting those hampers organised but hope to start giving them out on Tuesday.

Both Hay River and Kátł'odeeche First Nation  remain under an evacuation alert, meaning residents should be prepared to leave on short notice.

A portrait of two smiling people.
Danny Kolaohok, left, and Nancy Havioyak made it back to Hay River Sunday, after a long 35-day evacuation that they spent in Calgary. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Despite that alert, residents who flew into the airport Sunday expressed relief after touching down.

"It's really good to be home. It's been too long," said Nancy Havioyak. "It was hard to be away home ... six weeks is a long time."

She and Danny Kolaohok returned to Hay River from Calgary, where they spent the evacuation. 

Kolaohok said they're thankful to everyone in Calgary.

Now that they're home, Kolaohok said he's looking forward to sitting back and relaxing.

"It will be great to see my daughters and grandkids," he said. 

For its part, the Town of Hay River has said the town office will reopen Monday. Water, sewer, landfill, garbage pickup, water delivery and sewer pump-out services are operating as normal. The community centre, pool and recreation centre are closed for now to support fire crews.

On the wildfire front, fire information officer Mike Westwick told CBC Sunday morning that crews are doing a lot of mop-up work near the reserve and along the Hay River corridor.

Saturday brought a significant amount of fire activity on the east side of the river, but it pushed the fire east and north, he said. Defences around the communities are still strong.

With interviews by Sarah Krymalowski and Travis Burke