Hay River resident who lost everything in Northwest Territories wildfires is grateful and his town is still standing

It’s been three weeks since Sandra Patterson Lester pulled into the parking lot of a motel in Peace River, Alta., in her red van with her little chihuahua Gypsy and the clothes she was carrying on her back. Almost everything she owns is gone.

“If I hadn’t been out the second I walked out… My house was already on fire when I left,” she said.

“I almost lost five minutes, maybe four or three minutes, everything, my life included.”

Sitting on a park bench in Peace River, the sky is clogged with smoke from the wildfires that forced her and thousands of others from their homes in the Northwest Territories.

“I was closing my suitcase and then I heard a ‘woosh!’ and a door slammed shut from the fire, sucking in the oxygen,” she said. “It was fierce. We thought it was 60 kilometers away. It came without warning.

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Patterson Lester didn’t even have time to put on a shirt properly. She dropped the suitcase, grabbed Gypsy and jumped into her truck and headed for the riverbed, where her brother had already stopped.

“I kept saying to my brother, ‘Are we going to die?’ “, she recalls.

The riverbed where Sandra spent the night with her brother as fire burned around them in the Northwest Territories in August 2023.

Courtesy: Sandra Patterson Lester

The siblings spent the night watching from afar as anything in the road bearing their surnames was burned to the ground.

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“We saw and heard every area of ​​the property explode or burn. It was quite sad that day… We were in shock.

The Pattersons lost five homes, vehicles, a sawmill their father built decades ago and a firewood processing business.

“Unfortunately my brother has taken care of about 75 percent of the fires in the South Slave region, including Yellowknife, so unfortunately we don’t have any firewood. This is going to be a real tragedy in Yellowknife,” Patterson Lester said.

The firewood processing operation near Hay River, Northwest Territories caught fire in August 2023.

Courtesy: Sandra Patterson Lester

It’s not the structures of ownership that she mourns, it’s the things that can’t be replaced.

“I lost everything from my great-grandfather. He belonged to the Union army. I had his release papers. I had all my father’s medals. I had all my great aunt’s sheets. That’s what k**ls me now.

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“You cannot replace your memories. You simply cannot.

Fire crews in Hay River, Northwest Territories have been on an all-out offensive for weeks against the stubborn wildfires threatening the town.

It came to a head over the Labor Day long weekend. The fire reached half a mile from the community hospital, but crews managed to contain it.

“It was a serious battle to defend the city,” said Northwest Territories fire information officer Mike Westwick.

He said the community has finally received much needed rain.

“We’re digging and working to secure this place now with the time it bought us, but we’re by no means out of the woods yet,” Westwick said.

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Even though there is so much grief, Patterson Lester said the effort to protect the community she loves really makes her heart swell.

“My city means everything to me,” she said in tears.

“They held him, held him, held him. My town is still intact to this day.

And so far, everyone is still safe. In a community that experienced two fire evacuations this summer and a flood last year, they have proven their resilience time and time again.

“I know we have lost our family enclave. As long as we have our community and its people, we haven’t lost anything,” Patterson Lester said.

She still has a small cabin on wheels and she hopes to stay there until the snow falls, then she will move to town and plans to rebuild it.

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