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Jennifer Coleman has lived in and around Hay River in the Northwest Territories her whole life, but the highway into the community felt like a strange place as she and other wildfire evacuees were allowed to return there Saturday for the first time in over a month.

"It's almost like muscle memory when you drive that highway, it's almost like you shut your mind off and just drive, and you end up at home," Coleman said in an interview Sunday.

"It wasn't like that coming up. I didn't recognize anything. It was quite hard actually."

Coleman and her husband had been staying in Peace River, Alta., since Hay River, as well as the nearby hamlet of Enterprise and K'atl'odeeche First Nation, were evacuated on Aug. 13. They made the six-hour drive home Saturday in separate vehicles when the evacuation order was finally lifted at 9 a.m.

She had a podcast playing but turned it down. From the turnoff to Enterprise to about 10 kilometres outside of Hay River, fire had changed the landscape.

"It was a different land," Coleman said. "It was an emotional drive."

The Town of Hay River posted pics to social media on Sunday of flights arriving at its airport with returning evacuees, and Mayor Kandis Jameson said in a message that it will take a while for things to return to normal.

"We are excited to welcome everyone home from such a long time away," Jameson said, thanking firefighters "that have given us a place to return to."

"Please stay safe, give our fire crews room to do their work and look out for each other."

Residents of Hay River and surrounding communities return after month-long evacuation. #NWTWildfires #Wildfires #HayRiver

Enterprise residents remain evacuated due to the fire risk. K'atl'odeeche First Nation residents were allowed back Sunday.

Blair Warnock, who is perhaps Hay River's newest resident, got his first look at his new home on Saturday when he drove up from Edmonton with his spouse and a friend.

He got hired as a parts manager at a car dealership in Hay River before everyone had to leave, and accepted a lease for a home on the day the evacuation order was made.

"So we hadn't even had a chance to go up to sign the lease and get the keys and all that," explained Warnock, who was driving back to Edmonton Sunday to bring up a second carload.

"It was my first time actually being in town."

The drive to Hay River was smoky, Warnock said, particularly when they crossed from Alberta into N.W.T. On Saturday night near Enterprise, he said he could see flareups in the distance.

In Hay River, though, Warnock said the fire hadn't touched anything.

"Last night was actually clear in town. We saw stars and the northern lights," Warnock said.

Residents who are returning are being reminded by authorities that an evacuation alert remains in place, meaning they should be ready to leave again at short notice if fire conditions change.

Mayor Jameson encouraged her community to support friends, neighbours and local businesses that have lost work and business due to the evacuation.

"It’s a good opportunity to go out and reconnect at coffee shops, restaurants or your favourite stores. I’m looking forward to meeting you, as you come home," she said in her social media post Saturday.

For Chris Ahn, manager of The Rooster, a local convenience store, getting the business ready to open after a month of being closed again was a lot of work.

He was allowed to return early before other evacuees to get the store ready for when the general evacuation lifted, but wasn't quite ready to open Saturday, hoping instead to be open limited hours on Sunday.

"We need to clean inside and pick out all the the expired stuff and dump it, all the produce," Ahn said from the store on Saturday.

"It's been two days but I didn't finish it."

Schools in Hay River won't be resuming regular classes until Sept. 25, and they won't resume in K'atl'odeeche until Sept. 27.

NWT Fire warned in an update Sunday that residents might still see plumes of smoke near the community but it doesn't mean it isn't safe, noting a lot of work has been done to protect the town.

Coleman said she's ready to flee if it gets dangerous again.

"We are making sure our vehicles are full of gas, just in case," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

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