Northwest Territories evacuees relive their journeys out of wildfire danger

Cars lined up to leave Hay River, N.W.T. on Aug. 13. (Carla Ulrich/CBC)

‘Being evacuated two times in 24 hours is nothing like I have ever experienced’

After two evacuations and hundreds of kilometres along smoky highways, Ramanda Sanderson has finally found safety from the fires that are ravaging her Northwest Territories home.

“Being evacuated two times in 24 hours is nothing like I have ever experienced,” she said in an email from the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in Alberta, far from where she started earlier this week.

“Minutes feel like hours and days never seem to end.”

Sanderson is one of thousands of N.W.T. residents who have fled the 236 wildfires tearing through the northern boreal forest. More than 20,000 square kilometres have been burned.

Evacuations have been ordered for Fort Smith, Enterprise, Jean Marie River and Hay River.

Many highways have been closed by the fires and the territory is mounting what officials call the largest airlift in its history. The Canadian Forces are on the ground helping firefighters and flying evacuees out on Hercules aircraft.

Sanderson’s odyssey began Saturday when flames drove her from her home in Fort Smith along the Alberta-N.W.T. boundary.

“Fort Smith did an amazing job getting us out at the perfect time, and everyone left in a calm, timely manner,” she said.

She left in a convoy of campers and trucks with a party of relatives that included her fiance and family members adding up to 23 people, 10 dogs and three cats. The group drove the 272 kilometres to Hay River, where they thought they would be safe in the town’s campground.

They weren’t.

“No one anticipated the fire from Kakisa to move 50 kilometres in a matter of hours,” Sanderson said.

“Being in the hypervigilant state that we were already in from evacuating Fort Smith, once we saw the smoke rolling in and the black ashes falling, we just jumped into action immediately.”

Sanderson’s family messaged one another on social media to get a move on — 24 hours after their first evacuation.

“We ran to the gas station,” she said. “I was shaking really bad and my anxiety was through the roof.

“But the moment my family decided we’re leaving, I felt better and I just jumped to task and we hit the ground running. We got out immediately and within 45 minutes of driving past Enterprise, it was engulfed in flames.”

For residents of Enterprise, it was terrifying

“I had to scramble and pack what I could and leave,” recalled Natasha Cleary.

Cleary, her husband, their six children, two dogs, a cat, five kittens and their bearded dragon piled into the family motorhome and headed south.

“Everything is such a blur. We kind of just did what we could and left and everything else was just tunnel vision,” she said.

“We left just in time because it wasn’t long after that the highways were on fire.”

Sanderson’s group decided to head to the home of relatives on Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement, another 382 kilometres south, over dangerous roads.

“We were ahead of everybody by so much. We were so fortunate to get out as quick as we did,” she said.

“When we got closer to the N.W.T. border, it was so smoky. Everything was dark and red. It was like it was midnight, our high beams were on, and it was so smoky it was incredibly creepy.”

Cleary described the drive as surreal. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, travelling slow.

“It went pitch black, orangey and smoky, and was raining ashes.”

N.W.T. is currently dealing with hundreds of active fires across the territory. Above, smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky in Yellowknife on Tuesday. (Angela Gzowski/The Canadian Press)

Both families are safe now.

Cleary is holed up at a friend’s place in Grande Prairie, Alta., 720 kilometres from home.

Sanderson said Paddle Prairie has taken good care of people fleeing the wildfires. Her aunt and uncle’s yard has five campers full of N.W.T. evacuees.

“There’s a list of people who are going to be bringing us hot meals and they brought us 10 huge boxes of snacks yesterday and they upped the water deliveries for us because there’s so many of us on household water.”

Firefighters continue to battle the blazes

Only 93 firefighters and six helicopters remain in Fort Smith, where the fire has moved to within four kilometres from the community.

All non-essential first responders have been removed from the town to Fort McMurray and Edmonton and those who remain are ready to move quickly to other staging areas if things worsen, said incident commander Gregg Walker.

“The evacuation is an important public safety measure. This is still a dangerous environment for people to be in,” Walker said.

He said the area received a couple of millimetres of rain but its benefits won’t last long.

“It’s really very little rain and so although it looks and feels like it’s enough rain to control the fire, it really is not,” he said.

“In fact, by this afternoon or tomorrow, the dryness of the fields and the fire conditions will be the same as they were before we got that rain.”

Residents of the territorial capital Yellowknife have been told to be ready to leave. A state of local emergency has been declared, although the city is not currently considered threatened. A similar alert was issued for Inuvik at the far northwestern tip of the N.W.T.

Meanwhile, evacuees wait and worry. Since leaving, Cleary has been wracked with angst. She’s heard most of the hamlet has been ravaged by the wildfires, including her home.

“Our home is gone. Everything is burned right to the ground.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Enterprise, N.W.T., ’90 per cent gone’ after wildfire ravages community, CBC News

Norway: Smoke from Canadian wildfires forecast to reach Norway, The Associated Press

Russia: New NOAA report finds vast Siberian wildfires linked to Arctic warming, The Associated Press

United States: Wildfires in Anchorage? Climate change sparks disaster fears, The Associated Press

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