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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got an up-close look at the burned-out remains of buildings and vehicles Wednesday as he toured parts of the Northwest Territories ravaged by a record wildfire season.

Trudeau, along with local politicians, walked up residential driveways in the community of Enterprise to see the damage in the hamlet of about 100 people.

Chaal Cadieux, a foreman with the hamlet, told the prime minister that everyone got out safely.

A fast-moving wildfire in August tore through Enterprise, destroying nearly all its homes and structures. About 20 residents have returned, but many are staying elsewhere in the territory and other parts of Canada.

Cadieux said his family found a place to rent 40 kilometres away in Hay River.

As Trudeau and Cadieux walked over to a charred Ski-Doo trailer and swing set in Enterprise, Trudeau asked about something on the ground. Cadieux said it was for a zip line.

“I know that hitch,” Trudeau said.

Later in Hay River, Trudeau met with the town's fire chief, Travis Wright, and Mayor Kandis Jameson.

Prime Minister @JustinTrudeau visits fire-ravaged parts of Northwest Territories. ##CDNPoli #NWT #Wildfires

Wright showed Trudeau a series of maps depicting the growth of fires that threatened the community over the summer.

Trudeau said he knows how it feels to face multiple crises.

"(Former U.S. president Donald) Trump, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, to India, to Israel now — it’s like, OK, we are in a time right now where all of us are learning how to respond."

Trudeau finished his tour Wednesday at the nearby K'atl'odeeche First Nation. He went to the site of the community’s cultural institute, which burned down. He climbed on some of the rubble and laid down tobacco.

The prime minister said he appreciated the visit.

“An opportunity to see first-hand the extraordinary challenges this community has faced and overcome and is continuing to work hard to overcome — the floods last year to the fire earlier this year to the fire more recently this year — I know it’s been a very, very trying time,” Trudeau said.

The territory saw nearly 70 per cent of its population displaced during the fire season, including a three-week evacuation order that forced about 20,000 people to flee the capital of Yellowknife.

Wildfires have burned a record amount of area across the territory since flaring up in the spring. Ninety-five were burning as of Wednesday.

People in Hay River and K'atl'odeeche First Nation were forced to leave because of fire in May and again in August.

It was the later fire, fuelled by raging winds, that tore through Enterprise. Officials said 80 per cent of structures in the community were destroyed.

A few families who no longer have homes have been staying in recreational vehicles parked outside the hamlet's gas station as they wait for information on whether they will get a temporary house or can start clearing debris off their property.

They recounted stories of fleeing a wall of smoke that quickly moved in and the devastation they felt when they were able to return and found the blackened remains of the lives they had built.

Eighty-year-old Amy Mercredi recently returned to the community and said she cried when she saw the reality that the home she’d lived in for decades was gone.

She recalled having to leave with her two young grandsons and, once they arrived in northern Alberta, learning that their home had burned.

Mercredi said one grandson asked about his Lego, his most prized possession that was left behind. She held back tears as she kept driving.

Mercredi said she returned to Enterprise to make sure her grandsons could continue school in Hay River, but they don’t have a permanent place to stay.

Many who visited their burned homes said hotel rooms are not a long-term solution. The local hotel was also destroyed by the fire, so many are staying in Hay River, where accommodations are scant.

Blair Porter, a senior administrative officer with Enterprise, said he wants to make sure residents can return. The hamlet is trying to find solutions for those who lost their homes.

“One of the things we don’t want to have happen is that people just get fed up … throw their hands up in the air and say they are not coming back,” Porter said.

But, he said, the community needs co-operation from other levels of government to get it done.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 11, 2023.

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