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Residents of Canada's Northwest Territories race to flee capital as wildfire nears

Thousands raced to beat a noon Friday deadline to evacuate their homes as the worst fire season on record in Canada showed no signs of easing.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories — Residents in the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories were rushing to beat a noon Friday deadline to evacuate their homes as one of hundreds of wildfires raging in the territories moved closer to the city of 20,000.

Thousands fled on Thursday, driving hundreds of miles to safety or waiting in long lines for emergency flights, as the worst fire season on record in Canada showed no signs of easing.

The fire was within 10 miles of Yellowknife’s northern edge Thursday and officials worried that strong northern winds could push the flames toward the only highway leading away from the fire, which was choked with long caravans of cars.

Ten planes left Yellowknife on Thursday with 1,500 passengers, said Jennifer Young, director of corporate affairs for the Northwest Territories’ Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, adding that they hope to have 22 flights leave on Friday with 1,800 more passengers.

“I want to be clear that the city is not in immediate danger and there’s a safe window for residents to leave the city by road and by air,” Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Territories, told a news conference. “Without rain, it is possible (the fire) will reach the city outskirts by the weekend.”

Record number of wildfires

Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the U.S. — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 53,000 square miles from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. As of Thursday evening, 1,046 wildfires were burning across the country, more than half of them out of control.

In the Northwest Territories, 268 wildfires have already burned more than 8,100 square miles.

Residents of Canada's Northwest Territories race to flee capital as wildfire nears
Smoke rising from wildfires near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada on Aug. 13, 2023.Sylvia Webster / AFP - Getty Images

The evacuation of Yellowknife was by far the largest this year, said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and fire chief in Red Deer, Alberta.

“It’s one of those events where you need to get people out sooner rather than later,” because fire could block the only escape route before ever reaching the community.

A 'critical' moment

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said Thursday night that the fire isn’t the only concern.

“With the heavy smoke that will be approaching we encourage all residents to evacuate as soon as possible,” she said.

Alty said some good news is the fire didn’t advance as far as originally expected Thursday with crews working hard getting firebreaks in. But “it is still coming,” she said.

Mike Westwick, a fire information officer, said water bombers were being used to fight the flames.

“We’re heading into a critical couple of days during the management of this fire,” he said.

At the Big River Service Station about 185 miles south of Yellowknife, the line of vehicles waiting for fuel was “phenomenal,” employee Linda Croft said. “You can’t see the end of it.”

'I don't want to die, mommy'

Resident Angela Canning packed up her camper with important documents, family keepsakes and basic necessities as she prepared to leave with her two dogs, while her husband stayed behind as an essential worker.

“I’m really anxious and I’m scared. I’m emotional ... I’m in shock,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m coming home to or if I’m coming home. There’s just so much unknowns here.”

About 6,800 people in eight other communities in the territory have already been forced to evacuate their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, which was largely destroyed. Officials said everyone made it out alive.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to convene an urgent meeting with ministers and senior officials today as residents of the capital of Northwest Territories are ordered to evacuate the area because of an encroaching wildfire.
People wait in line to register for a flight to Calgary, Alberta in Yellowknife on Thursday. Bill Braden / AP

A woman whose family evacuated the town of Hay River on Sunday told CBC that their vehicle began to melt as they drove through embers, the front window cracked and the vehicle filled with smoke that made it difficult to see the road ahead.

“I was obviously scared the tire was going to break, our car was going to catch on fire and then it went from just embers to full smoke,” said Lisa Mundy, who was traveling with her husband and their 6-year-old and 18-month-old children. She said they called 911 after they drove into the ditch a couple of times.

She said her son kept saying: “I don’t want to die, mommy.”

Authorities said the intensive care unit at a Yellowknife hospital would close Friday and in-patient units from Stanton Territorial Hospital could be moved in the coming days. Most long-term care patients were transferred to institutions to the south, the Health and Social Services Authority said on its website.

Officials said evacuees who can’t find somewhere to stay can get support in three centers in the province of Alberta — the closest was more than 620 miles by road from Yellowknife.

Officials opened a reception center at the Calgary airport in preparation for the arrival of thousands of evacuees. Another center was set up at a hotel for those who drove to the city, said Iain Bushell, the city’s director of emergency management.

Evacuation flights are only for those who cannot leave by road, who are immunocompromised or who have conditions that put them at higher risk, officials said.

“We’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories,” Premier Caroline Cochrane posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The evacuation order issued Wednesday night applies to Yellowknife and the neighboring First Nations communities of Ndilo and Dettah.

Indigenous communities hit hard by wildfires

Indigenous communities have been hit hard by the wildfires, which threaten important cultural activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering native plants.

Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire specialist with Parks Canada, has said the wildfires “are so dangerous and so fast-moving” that evacuations increasingly are necessary, which is a challenge in remote communities where there might be one road in, or no roads at all.

Officials in British Columbia, where about 370 fires are burning, also were bracing for more evacuations, after dry lightning and brisk winds were forecast for the coming days.