Yellowknife begins evacuation as wildfires approach

Yellowknife residents leave the city on Highway 3, the only highway in or out of the community, after an evacuation order was given due to approaching wildfires. (Pat Kane/Reuters)

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Minister orders everyone out of Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndilǫ and the Ingraham trail by noon Friday

Yellowknife residents have been ordered to begin evacuating the city immediately as wildfires approach, N.W.T. officials said Wednesday evening.

While the city is not in immediate danger, Environment Minister Shane Thompson said a “phased approach” to evacuating will allow citizens to get out safely by car or by plane.

The evacuation order says residents should leave “according to risk.” People living along Ingraham Trail, in Dettah, and the Kam Lake, Grace Lake and the Engle business district in Yellowknife are considered at highest risk and are urged to leave as soon as possible.

Other residents of Yellowknife and Ndilo should leave by noon Friday.

“The fire now represents a real threat to the city,” Thompson said at a news conference Wednesday evening, adding it could reach the outskirts of the city by the weekend. The fire was about 17 kilometres from the city on Wednesday, he said.

Heavy smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky in Yellowknife on Tuesday. On Wednesday evening, territorial officials announced a city-wide evacuation order. (Angela Gzowski/The Canadian Press)

Fire information officer Mike Westwick said fire could reach the Ingraham trail by Friday.

The extraordinary evacuation order affects nearly 22,000 people.

It comes after days of reassurance from the city’s mayor, Rebecca Alty, that there was no immediate danger or need for the city to share details of its evacuation planning, and well after many people began to leave and businesses and other operations, including city recreation facilities and the dump, began to close.

Highway safe to drive

Thompson said Wednesday that the highway from Yellowknife to Alberta is safe to drive. People are being urged to fill up their vehicles before leaving Yellowknife, but he said the Department of Infrastructure will have a tanker full of gas along the route, and tow trucks will also be out in force.

“At Big River [Service Centre], they have informed us they have a lot of gas available and they will have other gas brought in Friday,” said Thompson.

Pilot vehicles will also be on the highway to escort evacuees through smoky areas in the fire zone.

“The window of opportunity right now is going to allow us to evacuate everybody safely,” Thompson said, adding, “we need you to do it now,” because the fire threatens both air and road access.

The N.W.T. government has ordered residents to leave in phases by noon on Friday, which will give people the opportunity to leave safely by car or plane. (Angela Gzowski/The Canadian Press)

No evacuation reception centres have been established yet. People with family or friends are encouraged to make use of the resources available to them.

Travellers can find the latest highway updates on the N.W.T. government’s Facebook page, as the highway conditions website has been experiencing technical difficulties.

Those without vehicles were urged to present themselves at the Multiplex in Yellowknife, where the city intends to establish a reception centre for those fleeing the Ingraham Trail and Dettah.

Air evacuations to begin Thursday

People who cannot leave by road, and residents who are immunocompromised or have other conditions that put them at higher risk, are asked to register for evacuation flights. Air evacuations are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Air evacuees are being advised to go to Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife, with standard carry-on baggage only, after 10 a.m. Thursday. Pets will be allowed on commercial carriers, but must be crated. On military aircraft, pets should be crated if possible.

A flight schedule is being developed and will be posted to the territorial government’s public safety page later Wednesday night.

Evacuees are urged to not leave by boat to a cabin or island on Great Slave Lake.

Thompson also said plans were in the works to help people experiencing homelessness.

Unprecedented situation

The minister reiterated that despite the incredible fire conditions and the number of evacuees from multiple N.W.T. communities, no fatalities have been reported due to fire, with the exception of firefighter Adam Yeadon.

Premier Caroline Cochrane ended Wednesday’s news briefing by once again calling the situation unprecedented.

“There’s no other way to describe it,” she said.

Yellowknife and surrounding communities now join Fort Smith, Hay River, the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Enterprise and Jean Marie River — all N.W.T. communities which have seen residents displaced due to out of control fires.

Cochrane also reiterated her plea for everyone who can leave to do so immediately.

CBC North will host a special broadcast Thursday morning starting at 6 a.m. in the N.W.T. The show will be devoted to the unprecedented evacuations in the territory. We’ll open our phone lines and we’d like to hear from you. What are your experiences, questions, concerns? Do you have messages of support for families and friends? We’ll also provide updates on the fire situation in your region. Tune in on your radio or the CBC Listen app. 

The territorial government has provided the following information for residents:

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Northwest Territories evacuees relive their journeys out of wildfire danger, The Canadian Press

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

Sara Minogue, CBC News

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