As wildfire nears, entire Canadian city is ordered to evacuate
By Ian Austen and Vjosa Isai
As a wildfire barreled toward a territorial capital in Canada on Thursday, an extraordinary citywide evacuation of thousands of people accelerated, with long lines of cars heading down the only highway south from the city.
Firefighters were struggling to contain the blaze, which was about 10 miles outside Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, officials said. The fire was ravaging a largely uninhabited forest, but was expected to reach the city by the weekend.
“The fire now represents a real threat to the city,” Shane Thompson, the territory’s environment and climate change minister, said at a news conference Wednesday evening.
Hundreds of wildfires have burned across Canada this summer, burning an unprecedented amount of land, but most of them have not threatened significant population centers.
Yellowknife is the only city in the Northwest Territories, which is part of a vast swath of northern Canada.
The evacuation of Yellowknife was being done in stages, with the last evacuees expected to leave by noon local time Friday, officials said.
Officials issued the order to evacuate Yellowknife on Wednesday night. Several nearby communities, including one of the Indigenous Dene people, Dettah, were also ordered to evacuate. Authorities fear that the highway linking those places to Yellowknife — where about 20,000 people live — could be engulfed by a separate fire as soon as Friday.
They also warned residents not to seek refuge on islands in the Great Slave Lake, just outside the city, because the air quality in the region was expected to deteriorate significantly as the fire nears. Local media reported that the traffic departing the city was steady, but flowing smoothly.
Escort vehicles had been assigned to guide motorists through some areas because smoke from the fires has at times obscured vision along the highway. Gasoline tank trucks along the route were filling motorists’ tanks at no charge.
Towns in northern Alberta had converted community centers and arenas into evacuation sites. At least one group was preparing to assist evacuees in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, about 900 miles away, on Thursday morning.
Some evacuees were also seeking safety in neighboring British Columbia.
“I’m debating about what to bring with me in terms of things like documents and keepsakes,” said Philip Boulton, an information technology analyst who was preparing to evacuate to northern Alberta. “I really don’t think that the town is going to burn down, but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part. I didn’t think I’d be evacuated either.”
He was reassured by local efforts to bolster fire breaks around the town, including widened sand pits and water sprinklers to cool the ground.
The remarkable order was yet another reminder of the disruption wrought by Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. About 1,000 fires are active in the country. So far this year, the fires have burned an area nine times as large as last year’s entire fire season. At times, smoke has traveled as far south as Georgia and as far east as Europe.
Lee Selleck, 68, a former journalist, said the smoke in Yellowknife in the days before he evacuated Wednesday night was so powerful that he hovered by his air purifier.
But he said he believes Yellowknife’s location — on the Great Slave Lake — might help protect the city from destruction.
“It’s probably going to stop outside the city,” said Selleck, who is heading to his daughter’s home in Victoria, British Columbia. “If it doesn’t, it’ll be one hell of a disaster.”
Evacuation flights on commercial airlines and Royal Canadian Air Force planes are scheduled to begin Thursday. People fleeing that way will be limited to a single piece of carry-on luggage; they were encouraged to bring food and drinks, and to limit themselves to five days’ worth of clothes.
Evacuating Yellowknife will dislodge about half of the entire population of the Northwest Territories.
Sparsely populated but covering a vast portion of Canada’s landmass, the Northwest Territories is one of the three Canadian territories that lack the powers given to provinces by the country’s constitution and rely on the federal government for a significant portion of their funding.
In addition to serving as the seat of government, Yellowknife is the administrative hub for the mining industry in the area.