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Businesses reopen as life in Hay River, N.W.T. returns to new normal after wildfire

As Hay River, N.W.T., residents settle back into their homes, local businesses are opening back up.

Some, like the Ptarmigan Inn, opened in stages. Others, like the Super A grocery store, never closed — selling groceries to those who stayed back while a destructive wildfire forced the Town of Hay River and Kátł’odeeche First Nation to evacuate.

Friday was Superior Audio Video’s first full day open. Its owner and operator, Craig Kovatch, said it was a little quieter than expected but he wasn’t worried. He’s using the extra time to manage the 2-weeks worth of freight that is now arriving.

“By [this week], everything will be back to normal. People will find their groove and we’ll move on,” he said.

Kovatch said Hay River residents are resilient and know how to handle challenging situations, especially after everything they’ve been through in the last couple of years.

Throughout the evacuation period, Kovatch said his first concern was making sure his family and other community members were safe.

“I think the biggest concern for most businesses is your staff, the people you have working for you,” he said. “Without them you have nothing.”

Kovatch said he was not surprised that a number of businesses continued to pay their employees throughout the wildfire emergency.

“Hay River businesses have stepped up and you have to, we’re a small community and you gotta take care of each other.”

Aurora Ford is one business that continued to pay employees according to Lee Cawson, the vice president of Aurora Group.

A man in a blue t-shirt standing outside.
Lee Cawson, the vice president of Aurora Group, stands outside of the Aurora Ford dealership in Hay River, N.W.T. He said the company’s biggest concern during the wildfire evacuation was the welfare of its staff. (Carla Ulrich)

“We were thinking about the employee’s safety and making sure everyone got out okay, and then checking with all of our department managers to make sure none of the staff needed extra supports,” he said.

Now that most of the employees are back, Cawson said Aurora Ford is focused on making up for lost time, mostly in the service & maintenance department.

“Especially over the last few years with everything that’s gone on, everybody is understanding and accommodating when it comes to rescheduling,” he said. 

Cawson said the dealership is prioritizing service appointments for critical issues and then squeezing non-urgent appointments in wherever they can.

Cawson said they’re dealing with a two-week backlog, but he’s confident they can make it up again “no problem.” Not everyone, however, is feeling as optimistic.

Government support not enough

Justin Nguyen owns Pho’s House, a family-run Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Hay River that’s nearing it’s second anniversary. 

The restaurant reopened on Friday, but Nguyen said they are dealing with a lot of losses after the evacuation — 10 days of income, thousands of dollars of food, and all their out-of-pocket expenses.

“We need support from the government,” he said. 

The Northwest Territories government launched two new programs on Thursday to help evacuees and some host communities with the financial burden of displacement.

The Evacuee Income Disruption Support Program is meant to help those whose work was interrupted by an evacuation with a one-time payment of $750. 

But Nguyen said his family is still catching up after flooding last year and he doesn’t think the $750 is going to be enough. He said they’re trying to stay positive when it comes to the future of their restaurant but they’re hoping small businesses will get more relief.

Despite varying levels of optimism about the future, all of the businesses had one thing in common — they were all thankful for the hard work of firefighters, town employees and everybody who helped keep the  community safe and informed. 

“They were against all odds and they came through it,” said Kovatch. “I think we’re all pretty grateful.”

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