Residents continue to make their way home this week to Hay River, N.W.T., after a five-week-long evacuation — and some are finding cause for hope and optimism even amid the devastation.
This summer’s wildfires have dramatically altered the landscape, and some returning residents have been shocked and saddened to see the changes.
“Brought me to tears, the devastation. I think I’m still in shell shock,” said resident Bonnie Dawson, speaking to CBC’s Trail’s End host Lawrence Nayally on Monday about her drive into Hay River a few days ago.
Dawson was one of many residents to share their story of return and how they’re feeling with Nayally, who has been hosting Trail’s End from Hay River and Fort Smith this week.
Dawson, a self-described animal lover, said she worries for the wildlife in the area and how animals will survive the coming weeks and months in the denuded landscape. She said she spotted a black bear foraging in the ditch beside the road.
“I was elated that he had survived. But I also knew in my heart that winter’s coming,” she said.
She was delighted, though, to see some old friends again — a family of eagles that she knows well.
“I’ve watched that eagle mom raise her family for the last eight years and it’s a good sign they survived,” she said.
Dawson is still shaken by the forced evacuation last month. She says she’s still got her car partly packed, and she sleeps in her clothes at night — “ready to go, just in case,” she said.
But she’s happy to be home and despite the repeated upheavals — Hay River’s been evacuated three times in a little over a year — says she can’t imagine living anywhere else. She’s also gained new perspective on herself.
“Where else could I come out on my lunch hour and sit and look at the river and watch the raven soaring? Or watch the eagle teaching her youngster how to soar? Where else?” Dawson asked.
“[The evacuation] was something I don’t want to go through again, but I realize I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was.”
‘We held that line’
Aaron Campbell of Hay River is also trying to look on the bright side these days. He spent the last month helping with the firefighting efforts, and he found it exhilarating.
“I have to say it was like, one of the best summers I’ve ever had in my life. Yeah, so I mean, it was chaos, but what an adventure,” he said.
“It was a battle. But we won. Yeah, we held that line.”
He described watching a line of vehicles making its way back into Hay River a few days ago, and how people’s faces would light up when they saw the “welcome home” signs.
“You know, like, the hair stands up on the back of your neck. And I was like, ‘Welcome home, welcome home,'” he said.
Campbell knows the wildfire danger is still present, and that it will take time to recover from the devastation. But he believes in his community and looks ahead with optimism.
“We’re so resilient. Yeah, it’s magical,” he said.
“We’re just gonna come back … you know, wait ’till stuff starts happening around here. Yeah, the North is the future.”
Campbell’s not alone in feeling a bit celebratory now that the evacuation has ended — in fact, some Hay River residents may be overdoing it a bit.
Firefighter Matt Smith, who’s been up from Alberta to help out in Hay River this month, said Monday that there had been “multiple” reports of people setting off fireworks over the previous day.
“Now is not the time for that. We just want to reach out and ask everybody, just be smart,” Smith said.
“The community’s gone through enough. We don’t need any new fires starting.”