Wayne Korotash woke up around 7:30 a.m., made a cup of coffee, and turned on the TV for a bit of background noise. The house, a rental, was quiet. His wife, Melissa Hofmann, and their two teenaged kids had left Hay River three days earlier for their son’s hockey camp in Sylvan Lake, Alta. It was just Korotash and Pickles, the family’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel poodle mix, at home on this clear-skied morning, Sunday, Aug. 13. Although it was windy, Korotash thought perhaps he’d go golfing.
He was looking forward to his family’s move back into their own home, which had been damaged in a May 2022 flood that forced them and the rest of Hay River’s 3,500 residents to evacuate. Their house is right on the riverbank, and water and ice destroyed the basement and foundation. While it was being renovated, they moved into this rental, about two or three blocks away. Fourteen months later, the work was now nearly done, and the family expected to move back in the next couple weeks. They’d already packed up many of their belongings and were storing them in their car trailer.
A few hours after he woke up, Korotash got a phone call from one of his employees at the local Home Hardware, the business he owned with Hofmann. The staffer was in Enterprise, a hamlet of 100 people about 40 kilometres down the highway, running a concession stand for that weekend’s Gateway Jamboree. The employee said a forest fire near the small community of Kakisa, about an hour’s drive to the northwest, was moving east at a rapid clip. “I think we’re going to be evacuated,” she said.
Korotash brushed it off. The air wasn’t smoky, the sky wasn’t dark—there was no indication whatsoever that Hay River was in danger. Plus, the community had already evacuated once due to a wildfire. Two evacuations in one summer was beyond the realm of possibility. Wasn’t it?
As the day wENT on, Korotash began to feel unsettled. From his house that Sunday afternoon, he noticed the highway was busier than usual. He drove into town to check in at his store and noticed vehicles lined up at the gas stations. Other residents, it seemed, knew more than he did.
They had reason to be on edge. The summer of 2023 was a summer of wildfires—and not just in the North. Canada experienced its worst fire season on record with 15-million hectares burned, more than five times the 10-year average. Hay River had already experienced the developing season. In mid-May, just after the snow melted, a wildfire forced the evacuation of the town and the neighbouring Kátł’odeeche First Nation (KFN). The latter lost several homes and buildings, including the band office.
At Home Hardware, Korotash backed up accounting information, removed his and Hofmann’s hard drives from their computers, and turned off the servers—just in case. “There was a sense of urgency, a sense of panic that I was starting to pick up on,” he says. “Your instincts were telling you something’s not right.”
Around 2 p.m., another employee called. She was concerned about the fire but had a shift at the store the next day and didn’t want to leave town if it was going to put Korotash out. He told her to go. Her safety and comfort were most important. Then he started checking in with his other staff. His manager texted to say she was leaving for her son’s place in High Level, Alta.
Korotash began to realize this was serious. “It was about that time things started rolling,” he says. He called Hofmann to let her know what was going on, then drove over to his parents’ place to tell them they should leave. His mom didn’t think it was necessary—were they really at risk? His parents had endured Hay River’s “Great Flood” and evacuation in 1963. That event led to the creation of a new townsite upriver, though some people remained in what’s now called Old Town.
As Korotash stood in his parents’ house, trying to convince them, an emergency alert sounded on their phones: Hay River was under an evacuation order. Korotash felt sick to his stomach. “That sound is terrifying now,” he says.
It was now 3 p.m. Korotash’s parents began packing, and sirens started wailing in town as police and firefighters drove around, informing anyone who’d missed the alert. He headed back to his store, packing up the computers and hard drives, so he and Hofmann would have what they needed if the community burned down and they had to start over somewhere new.
As he was getting ready to leave, Korotash had trouble closing the overhead door in the warehouse; it had jumped the track and he didn’t want to leave it open and risk products being stolen. He called a technician, but by then, everyone was focused on leaving town. So, he parked his delivery van in front of the door, hoping that would deter thieves. Then he headed home and began filling up his suitcase with clothing and anything else within eyesight before loading up his wife’s Ford Expedition—she had driven his Ford F-150 to Sylvan Lake. Ready to leave, he let Hofmann know he and Pickles were on their way.
By early evening, the sky was dark and glowing orange. “It was kind of nightmarish and apocalyptic,” Korotash says. That’s when another employee called him. She’d been driving out of town but had to turn around. Highway 2 was engulfed by fire and evacuees were being sent back to Hay River.
There are only two ways out of the community. Highway 2 leads to Enterprise, where it ends at Highway 1, which travels south to Alberta. Highway 5 connects Hay River to Fort Smith, to the southeast, where it ends at a short Alberta road heading to the edges of Wood Buffalo National Park. Fort Smith, though, had just been evacuated the day before due to another wildfire, and Highway 5 was closed intermittently as the flames travelled across the road. Hay River was now cut off.
Residents who made it out before the Highway 2 closure later told harrowing stories of driving through Enterprise as the fire moving in from Kakisa razed the small community. The paint on their cars peeled and headlights melted. The air was thick with smoke and flying embers under an orange sky, and flames devoured trees along the road. The Town of Hay River, meanwhile, was coordinating air transportation for those who needed it. That night, 215 residents flew to Grande Prairie, Alberta.
The fire bearing down on Hay River had travelled 39 kilometres that day, driven by the wind. Around 8 p.m., it damaged the fibre line in Enterprise, cutting Northwestel telecommunications to Hay River and several other communities in the region. Now, except for the few Starlink satellite customers, there was no phone service, no internet, no way of getting official updates on the fire, no means of communicating with the outside world. Korotash couldn’t let Hofmann know that he was stuck in Hay River. He was worried.
That night, he and Pickles drove north through town to the edge of Great Slave Lake, where the family keeps an RV. He wasn’t comfortable spending the night in their rental, which was located right on the highway. “I didn’t want to be waking up in the middle of the night and not have anywhere to go,” he says. “So I thought, okay, we’ll go to the lake. If God forbid, the fire comes that far, we’re jumping in the water.”
The speed at which a wildfire travels depends on a few factors: weather conditions, the type of combustible fuel available, and topography. A fire will spread faster uphill because heat rises and dries out fuel further up the slope. Wind is one of the biggest factors—and the most unpredictable. It can supply a wildfire with more oxygen, dry out fuels, and push the fire across the landscape.
High winds played a role in the Town of Fort Smith’s decision to evacuate on Aug. 12, due to a fire in Wood Buffalo National Park. With forecasted gusts of 60 kilometres per hour for the following day, Parks Canada incident commander Jane Park told Cabin Radio that the blaze may move northeast and force a closure of Highway 5.
The community had had the same hot, dry conditions as the rest of the South Slave region that summer. The Fort Smith area typically sees about 64 millimetres of precipitation in August. This year, there were only five millimetres.
Not only were conditions ripe for the fast-moving Wood Buffalo wildfire, its behaviour was also unusual, says Jay Macdonald, Fort Smith’s deputy mayor as well as the manager of forest management services in the NWT government’s Department of Environment and Climate Change. “It’s burned through 10-year-old burns that should theoretically slow it down significantly,” he says. A change of pace could have made it easier to tackle the fire. “That was not happening.”
On Aug. 11, Fort Smith issued an evacuation alert, meaning residents should be prepared to leave on short notice. When the evacuation order went out the next day, people were advised to leave in eight hours. If they had nowhere else to stay, they should head to the Hay River Community Centre, about a three-hour drive away on Highway 5. People registering for a bus or plane out of Fort Smith lined up at the rec centre with their belong ings and pets. But they soon learned they couldn’t bring their animals and had to leave them tied to the fencing or in crates in front of the rec centre.
When Korotash woke up on Aug. 14, Hay River was a ghost town, but it was still standing. All long-term care and hospital patients had flown to Yellowknife. The Town of Hay River posted an update on its website at 10:30 a.m. that noted “significant structure damage” in Enterprise, as well as in the Patterson Road area and at Paradise Gardens south of Hay River. The update—which was likely not widely read at the time, given the Northwestel outage—advised remaining residents to get on a flight leaving for Fort McMurray that morning.
Korotash and his cousin, who was still in town, went to the airport-turned-muster-point to try to get more information. He was hopeful he’d be able to drive out, now that it seemed the fire had moved away from the highway.
During the May evacuation, Hofmann and the kids had left for Grande Prairie but he had stayed in Hay River. That fire was east of town and didn’t jeopardize the highway south to Alberta. If it had, or if it had encroached on the townsite, Korotash says he would have left. He’d also felt obligated to stay back in May because he was getting phone calls from fire crews who needed supplies from Home Hardware. He wanted to help.
Now, firefighters again needed gear, including work gloves, headlamps, batteries, and hoses, so he drove to Home Hardware to unlock the store. Then he went home and moved the family’s trailer and his daughter’s car to a compound in the local industrial park, away from trees and ground cover. He figured the vehicles may be safer there if the fire entered the town.
By that point, some local business owners had shared access to their Starlink satellite internet so people could communicate with loved ones down south. At the Aurora Ford dealership that afternoon, Korotash FaceTimed Hofmann and the kids. She’d expected to hear from him Sunday night, after he left Hay River and got back into cell service in Steen River, Alta., about two hours south. “To not hear from him for about a day… your mind just goes to the worst place,” Hofmann says. “Just anxiety-ridden and fearful.”
Once she and the kids knew he was okay, they talked about what else to bring now that he had more time to pack thoughtfully. Hofmann requested the ashes of her parents, both of whom had died in the last few years. Korotash buckled the urn into the backseat. Their daughter didn’t have any requests; their 14-year-old son asked for his Xbox and his cowboy boots. (Korotash remembered the former but forgot the latter.) “The other material things just really weren’t important,” Hofmann says. ”Getting Wayne out, that was the most critical thing.”
The next day, Korotash and Hofmann had an emotional conversation and decided he’d try to make a break for it via the highway. He’d seen posts on social media the day before by people who’d made it safely to Alberta. Hofmann told him the kids were worried about him, and he knew then that he had to leave. “I get choked up about that phone call,” he says. He didn’t know what would remain of their home, their community, when they returned.
Around 4 p.m., Korotash drove out of Hay River, after handing the keys to the Home Hardware store to another local business owner in case fire crews needed anything else. The highway south was safe—the fire had moved on—but the scenery was grim. He passed about a dozen vehicles in the ditch, some burned so severely that only the metal frames remained. The landscape was black, covered in charred trees, and the air smelled of smoke. It was a quiet, somber drive, punctuated by occasional face licks from Pickles.
Throughout the chaos of the summer, Northerners looked out for each other. When gas stations couldn’t process electronic payments in Hay River, customers wrote down their names and promised to pay upon their return. Ray Shields, a Hay River great-grandfather, stood in the smoke and heat of the flames on the evening of Aug. 13, warning motorists on Highway 2 that the fire was ahead, consuming the road, and that they must turn around.
In a Facebook group, NWT residents posted inquiries about loved ones they hadn’t been in contact with, or cats they couldn’t locate in the rush of evacuation. Others shared news of lost pets they’d found. On community Facebook pages, people posted counselling resources, offered guidance on how to access hotel accommodations in Alberta, and shared events held in the province for evacuees.
There were big acts of support—like NWT, Yukon, and Alberta residents welcoming evacuees into their homes and onto their properties—and small, tender gestures. After Brenda Hall evacuated Hay River in May, for instance, a neighbour who stayed behind watered her tomato plants and sent her a photo of her house to assure her it was still standing.
Hall, who has lived in Hay River since 1989, believes that the difficult events of this summer—as well as the 2022 flood—have caused greater bonding between the residents of her community. “It’s very stressful,” she says. “I think I have more grey hair since everything happened.”
Experiences like these can be traumatic. Having to flee your home, combined with the uncertainty of what will remain upon your return, is distressing. “This is a threat in a really existential way,” says Geneviève Gagnon, a generalist counsellor with the Canadian Mental Health Association Yukon Division who is also involved in a new project exploring how Yukoners are coping with climate change.
“We need to have access to shelter, food, some level of security. It’s no small thing when those things get disrupted, even if our physical bodies aren’t impacted or injured. Our mind is telling us there’s a threat to our physical bodies and our sense of security.”
For First Nations people, evacuations can further trigger feelings related to loss of connection to the land, as well as trauma associated with being forcibly removed from their homes in the past and sent to foster care or residential schools, according to British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority.
The landscape’s transformation after a wildfire can also affect mental health by reducing the solace people once found in the environment. A study in Arizona found that, post-fire, residents who experienced grief related to changes in the natural environment were more likely to report psychological distress. Feeling these types of “eco-emotions” is a healthy response for those fleeing from a fire, who’ve lost their homes, or who are simply reading about natural disasters all over the world, Gagnon says. “These emotions can actually help us to cope with the uncertainty, to prepare ourselves for different types of loss that we might experience.”
As Korotash drove through Paradise Gardens and Enterprise, he thought about his friends who had lost their homes. He couldn’t fathom what they were going through. He thought about his family—how they were safe, and he couldn’t wait to get back into cell service and let them know he was okay.
He and Hofmann are high-school sweethearts, both born and raised in Hay River. His grandparents lived there, and now his children are growing up there. “It’s home,” he says. “It will always be home. And that was the hardest part—are you driving down the highway for the last time? My wife—I love her to death—she said, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens. We’re a family. And wherever we are together as a family is where home will be.’”
The family reunited in Sylvan Lake, about a 12-hour drive south. Then they all drove to Korotash’s sister-in-law’s house near Brooks, three hours further south. That’s where they stayed for the next month, until Hay River residents got the all-clear to return. Korotash, Hofmann, and the kids went back to their rental — the move into their renovated home was delayed by the latest fire, since the workers evacuated too.
Korotash knows some people who considered not going back to Hay River and starting over somewhere new. After three evacuations in 15 months, residents are feeling beaten down. As people come home and resume their routines, though, he knows they’ll stand strong together. “We’re here for each other. We got through a flood, we got through a fire in May. We’ll get through this one.”