Evacuation ordered for 20,000 residents of Yellowknife as wildfire approaches

By Jamin Mike and Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press

The territorial government of the Northwest Territories has issued a city-wide evacuation order for Yellowknife as wildfires threaten the capital.

In an update Wednesday night, the territory’s minister of Environment and Climate Change and Municipal and Community Affairs announced a city-wide evacuation order that would involve a “phased approach” but did not go into detail.

The territory says in an evacuation order that those living along the Ingraham Trail, in Dettah, Kam Lake, Grace Lake and Engle Business District are at highest risk and should leave as soon as possible.

Other residents have until noon Friday to leave.

“I want to be clear that the city is not in immediate danger and there is a safe window for residents to leave the city by road and by air,” Minister Shane Thompson told reporters. “Please take this order seriously and be prepared to leave the city by Friday.”

The government says it is safe for residents to drive out of Yellowknife and that if there are smoky conditions, those leaving by highway will be escorted from the city through the active fire zone.

Evacuation flights are available, but the government said only those who don’t have the option of leaving by road should register. People who are immunocompromised or have a condition that puts them at higher risk are encouraged to register for flights.

Air evacuations are set to begin Thursday afternoon.

An evacuation centre has been set up at the Yellowknife Multiplex for evacuees from Dettah and the Ingraham Trail. There are also facilities in the city available for residents who wish to stay, but the government said they are temporary.

It added that evacuation by boat to an island or cabin is not recommended because air quality is expected to decline.

Wildfires crept closer Wednesday while evacuees continued to arrive in Alberta, recounting stories of roads on fire and homes melted to their metal frames.

“A network of fuel breaks, sprinklers and other protective measures are being put in place by the city of Yellowknife and our team,” stated the N.W.T. government in a fire update posted online Wednesday.

The N.W.T. is grappling with more than 200 wildfires that have already burned an area four times the size of Prince Edward Island.

Westwick said eight communities have evacuated, representing 15 per cent — or nearly 6,800 people — of the territory’s population.

“The human toll of this wildfire season can’t be overestimated,” he said.

The territorial government declared a state of emergency late Tuesday, allowing it to access resources to combat what it’s calling an unprecedented wildfire season.

Many highways have been closed and the territory has had what officials called the largest airlift in its history. Canadian Forces personnel are helping firefighters and have flown evacuees out on Hercules aircraft.

In St. Albert, Alta., on Edmonton’s outskirts, Tanisha Edison arrived at a fire evacuation centre after a 19-hour drive from her home in Hay River.

Edison, who is days away from giving birth, said the trek took her through the hamlet of Enterprise, home to about 100 people.

“The town was gone pretty much,” Edison said. “No buildings left. It was just metal frames melting.

“You couldn’t even read the signs because … when the fire blew through there, they were all melted.

“Trees were like ashes. Everything was like ashes and on fire.”

About 80 per cent of Enterprise, including homes and businesses, was destroyed but everyone made it out alive, said Blair Porter, the community’s senior administrative officer.

“Just a couple days ago, it was a thriving community … now it’s all gone. It’s pretty devastating.”

Evacuee Yvette Bruneau of Hay River said she was dodging flames on the road and driving blind through the smoke trying to get to safety.

“We couldn’t see the road, zero visibility,” Bruneau said.

“The only way I knew I was on the road (is) my car would start tilting (into the ditch).”

She said when she later got out of the car, it had been torched on one side.

“I phoned my son and I said, ‘Well, if I don’t make it out, I love you.’ He said, ‘Mom, I love you, too.'”

She then told him: “Do not come after me. You will not make it.”

There have been no reports of injuries or fatalities due to the wildfires.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane spoke Wednesday, agreeing to remain in close contact as the wildfire situation develops.

“The prime minister reaffirmed the Government of Canada’s commitment to provide ongoing assistance to the territory and affected communities,” a readout from Trudeau’s office said.

In Yellowknife, RCMP told staff in an email Tuesday that non-essential employees and members’ families should consider evacuating.

Spokesman Cpl. Matt Halstead said Wednesday that the email was a precautionary measure.

“The reality for myself and the other members here is that if an evacuation order is given, we don’t get to go home and attend to our families,” Halstead said in an email.

“Our focus will be on the people in the city and supporting the tasks related to the evacuation. Allowing us to square away our families now, whether that’s having them leave or hunker down, will keep us from worrying as our duties continue.”

RCMP have also said that they were dealing with fires from within the city. Officers had made arrests and were looking for suspects in two separate arsons on Tuesday night.

One fire was spotted at Fred Henne Territorial Park, near the airport, and was quickly extinguished by an area resident. Four girls are also accused of trying to light a fire in a green space in an east-end neighbourhood. Police seized aerosol cans and lighters.

“It is completely beyond understanding that in the face of everything going on in the territory and the threat approaching our city, that people would actively attempt to start fires and endanger our community members,” Halstead said in a news release.

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