While Gabrielle Landrie was at home in Hay River, across the water the sky was on fire.
“You could see, clear as a bell, flames shooting up. I’d say nothing less than 150 feet up. The sky, it glowed red, and you could hear little pops here and there that would have been fuel tanks exploding.”
Landrie, who used to fight fires as a teenager, suffers from spinal stenosis, and is bound to a wheelchair. This made evacuating with the rest of the Town more trouble than it was worth.
Instead, Landrie sat on the front porch, taking in the light show. The front lawn is still littered with burnt pine needles.
As Landrie passes the time working on a new graphic novel, life in the town slowly returns to normal after ten days under an evacuation order: On Wednesday and Thursday, there was a clear blue sky above Hay River, with only faint smell of smoke in the air. On Wednesday evening, a girls’ soccer practice was taking place in the field in front of Diamond Jenness Secondary School.
But while residents have been trickling back in for more than a week, some, like Landrie, never left at all.
‘I got my family right here’
It’s not clear how many stayed behind following the May 15 evacuation order: Philip Unger, the Hay River RCMP’s detachment commander, said in canvassing one third of the neighbourhood, he and his team found 27 households that had stayed behind.
Even as residents return to Hay River, the fire continues to burn, although crews have managed to hold it at about 3,200 hectares.
As the fire raged on just a few kilometres away, Steve Ingram remembers a bright orange sky, heavy smoke, and low-flying water bombers overhead.
Ingram chose to stay behind with his dog. “I got my family right here: Marley. Yeah, that’s all I got,” he said.
He joked that if he needed to evacuate, he would steal a boat from the shore.
Ingram, like Landrie, wasn’t scared by the fire. “Nothing really bothers me right now, not even a fire,” he said.
While some remained due to disability or personal choice, others stayed to help protect their community.
As a camp manager, Frank McKay is responsible for making sure firefighters on the front lines are supplied with things like food and water. He also occasionally tours the front lines to take pictures and help boost morale.
As a resident of Hay River, McKay says, “It’s personal. You know, Hay River was evacuated last year, and this year was fires. So the community’s having some setbacks, but as Northerners, we’re resilient, we’re gonna rebuild.”
Rebuilding is going to take extra time and effort across the river: While Hay River remains untouched, 18 buildings in K’atl’odeeche First Nation (KFN) have been damaged by fire. Residents of KFN have not yet been given the green light to return home yet.
Meanwhile, much of Hay River remains under an evacuation alert, ready to flee again at a moment’s notice, if they have the luxury to do so.