Fort Smith, N.W.T., mayor says town meeting on Monday will determine possible return date

The mayor of Fort Smith, N.W.T., says the town will meet on Sept. 11 to discuss a possible return plan, but it will depend on fire activity over the weekend.

Fred Daniels said the town council will look over recommendations from the fire crews on the ground based on the weekend’s fire activity, which is expected to be high. 

Adam McNab, Fort Smith’s director of protective services, said although the threat to Fort Smith has decreased, areas around it remain threatened. Fire activity is expected to be high over the next several days.

Daniels said that once the evacuation order is lifted, more essential workers must return before the general population can. 

This development comes just a few days after Fort Smith welcomed back critical workers, including RCMP, staff from the power corporation, grocers and health care workers.

Daniels said he’s had discussions with the N.W.T. government, Wood Buffalo National Park officials, and the Alberta government about the return process. 

Daniels said the earliest return flights would be organized for Tuesday, adding he wanted to start the return process a week ago but had to wait until the situation was more secure. 

“Perhaps I’m a little pushy or whatever,” he said. 

Fred Daniels, Fort Smith’s mayor, said the town will begin the process of welcoming people back on Monday. (Fred Daniels/Facebook)

“I realize there’s certain stuff we got to do before we get to that point… But I’m a mayor that doesn’t have good patience.”   

Daniels thanked those on the ground who have ensured the community remains safe. 

“You’ve done a wonderful job, and we owe you a lot,” he said.

In an update posted to Facebook around noon on Saturday, Wood Buffalo National Park said there is a “reduced threat to Fort Smith because of firefighters’ hard work,” but it still wasn’t safe for people to return. 

“Until essential services are re-established, the community can not support re-entry.”

The post said Highway 5, the only road in and out of Fort Smith, was closed on Friday due to safety concerns and limited visibility. According to the N.W.T. Highways map, the road remained closed as of Saturday evening.

Financial strain on evacuees

Daniels said he recognized how difficult the evacuation has been on many residents, financially, and said he thinks not enough assistance is being provided by the territorial government. 

“They were going to give us money, and then they clawed it back again,” he said. 

Daniels said he and other leaders issued a letter to the premier to ask for more financial assistance. 

Fort Smith has been evacuated due to a wildfire since Aug. 12. It was the first in a series of communities to be evacuated that week. Evacuees were first sent to Hay River. But 24 hours later, that community was also evacuated and told to head south. 

Fort Smith, Hay River and other South Slave region evacuees have been spread across Alberta, including many around High Level and Grande Prairie, which have reached their maximum capacity for evacuees. 

Daniels has been in Fort McMurray, Alta., where he was hospitalized for a blood issue. He said he’d ignored the issue for a while, but the evacuation suddenly forced him to deal with it.  

“I didn’t want to come out here in the first place, so I got out here, and it was probably good that I came because my health failed here,” he said.   

He thanked the hospital staff for helping him recover.

“I should’ve been taking care of myself more, but I love my career, and I’ve been putting my career ahead of my health a lot of times,” Daniels said.

Fort Smith municipal sign with red skies.
The Fort Smith welcome sign pictured on Aug. 13, just after an evacuation order was issued for the community as a result of a nearby wildfire. (Julie Beaver/CBC)

Lobbying for an all-season road out of Fort Smith

Daniels said another issue brought to light during the evacuations was the lack of roads out of the territory. 

He said he had been in touch with the federal government about building an all-season road south out of the community, a subject he said has been discussed in the past. 

“You only have one way out, right?” he said. 

“Having another road in our section would mean the territory, Yellowknife, and that could all use that road in evacuations or tourism.”

Fort Smith is on the Alberta border, but the road crossing into the southern province runs only about 25 kilometres. 

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