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Wildfire nears capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as fleeing residents fill roads and flights

Thousands have fled, driving hundreds of miles to safety or waiting in long lines for emergency flights

Sgt. Avery Parle updates the crowd waiting outside a local school, to get registered for an evacuation flight, as wildfires threatened the Northwest Territories town of Yellowknife, Canada, August 17, 2023.
Sgt. Avery Parle updates the crowd waiting outside a local school, to get registered for an evacuation flight, as wildfires threatened the Northwest Territories town of Yellowknife, Canada, August 17, 2023.JENNIFER GAUTHIER (REUTERS)

Residents in the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories rushed 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 have fled, driving hundreds of kilometers (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 16 kilometers (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.

Still, there remained plenty of time to leave by road or air, Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Territories, told a news conference. He said that without rain the fire might reach the city’s outskirts by the weekend.

“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.

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 137,000 square kilometers (53,000 square miles) from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

As of Thursday evening, more than 1,000 wildfires were burning across the country, over half of them out of control. Hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the south of Yellowknife, hundreds of properties were ordered to evacuate because of the threat from a wildfire near West Kelowna, British Columbia.

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.

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

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said that the fire wasn’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.

As people fled, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his incident response group. He asked ministers to work to ensure communication services remained available and said there would be no tolerance for price gouging on flights or essential goods.

At the Big River Service Station about 300 kilometers (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.”

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.

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.

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

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, posing a challenge in remote communities where there might be one road in, or no roads at all.

Alice Liske left Yellowknife by road with her six kids earlier this week because the air quality was so bad.

She worried about how so many people would flee the city in such a short time.

“Not only that,” she said, “but when we go back, what will be there for us?”

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