Long lines for evacuation flights out of Yellowknife

A line of people at Sir John Franklin High School, stretching down 49th Street, waiting to get on evacuation flights out of Yellowknife. The entire city has been ordered to evacuate by noon on Friday because of threatening wildfires. (Francis Tessier-Burns/CBC)

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A massive line of people at Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife, who are waiting to register for an evacuation flight out of the wildfire-threatened city, is moving slowly — amid light rain.

People who can’t drive out of the city were told to head to the school at 10 a.m., but as of 9:25 a.m, hundreds of people were already lined up along 49th Street. Police have been seen, patrolling the line.

The territorial government said air evacuations were scheduled for 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Pets will be allowed on commercial carriers, but must be crated. On military aircraft, pets should be crated if possible.

People are being asked to bring no more than a five days worth of clothing, as well as essential items like medication, chargers, and important documents.

Kirsten Murphy, a Yellowknife resident with a seat on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver at 5 p.m., told CBC News Thursday that although people are concerned about the fire itself — the biggest stress right now is figuring out how to leave.

“Not everyone has vehicles, how are they supposed to get to the high school?” she said. “Nobody can believe this is happening.”

Airlines adjusting

Air Canada says it’s added two extra flights out of Yellowknife on Thursday — doubling the number of flights it would have under normal conditions. All the flights scheduled out of the city today are full, the company said.

“We are working with authorities to determine how long we can continue to operate given the limitations being imposed on flying due to the fires,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email.

A member of the Canadian Armed Forces handing out snacks to those waiting in line for emergency flights out of Yellowknife. (Francis Tessier-Burns/CBC)

They also addressed concerns about high prices for those last-minute seats.

“We have put in place a cap on our fares for non-stop flights out of Yellowknife, and if you go to the Air Canada website, you will see the fares are not elevated. Although flights are nearly full, at the time I am sending this there is a Yellowknife-Edmonton flight for $272 for example for tomorrow.”

WestJet, meanwhile, said it’s added an extra recovery flight scheduled on Thursday from Yellowknife to Calgary, and is using bigger aircraft to run previously scheduled flights.

The airline also said it has adjusted fare classes to avoid price escalation and has announced flexible guidelines for changes and cancellations for all guests travelling to Yellowknife Thursday until Tuesday.

The airline also said it’s allowing more pets on board its flights.

The Canadian Armed Forces said it’s providing aircraft to help with logistical tasks and emergency evacuations, including a J Hercules, a Twin Otter, and 3 Griffon Helicopters — all aircraft are based in Yellowknife, except for one helicopter that’s based in Edmonton and can move on 12 hours’ notice.

Pivoting plans

Murphy said she heard rumblings about an evacuation order throughout the city on Wednesday, before it was officially announced during a press conference at 7:30 p.m. She had a plan to head with her husband and dog to the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, but pivoted because of poor air quality.

“The reaction was sort of like, wow our plan isn’t going to work, going out the cabin, we have to rethink this,” she said. While she expects to be on a plane this evening, Murphy’s husband (a CBC North manager) will stay in town and will boat out onto Great Slave Lake with a friend if the situation gets worse.

A line of people waiting at a high school in Yellowknife on Thursday morning, where they’ve been told to go to get on evacuation flights leaving the city starting at 1 p.m. (Francis Tessier-Burns/CBC)

In a single bag, Murphy said she’s packed her passport, hard drive, and camera equipment.

“Everything else is replaceable,” she said.

Murphy and her husband also plan to leave Rubbermaid bins with dog kibble and water outside their home for animals who may be left behind.

“The one thing we’re going to do before we leave is put out water and dog food … for animals who may have gotten left behind,” she said. “That’s what breaks my heart at this time. Just the animals and seniors and elders who can’t make sense of this.”

The territorial government has provided the following information for residents:

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Trudeau convenes emergency meeting to discuss N.W.T. wildfires, 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

Liny Lamberink, CBC News

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She previously worked for CBC London as a reporter and newsreader. She can be reached at liny.lamberink@cbc.ca

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