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News / Nation & World

Residents flee, airlifts begin as wildfire approaches capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories

By Associated Press
Published: August 17, 2023, 11:12am
5 Photos
Wildfire smoke fills the air at Boundary Creek, Northwest Territories about 15 miles (25km)  east of Yellowknife, Tuesday Aug. 15 2023. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces were set to mobilize in the Northwest Territories on Tuesday, as wildfires threatened communities including the territorial capital, and hundreds of people were airlifted to safety.
Wildfire smoke fills the air at Boundary Creek, Northwest Territories about 15 miles (25km) east of Yellowknife, Tuesday Aug. 15 2023. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces were set to mobilize in the Northwest Territories on Tuesday, as wildfires threatened communities including the territorial capital, and hundreds of people were airlifted to safety. (Bill Braden/The Canadian Press via AP) Photo Gallery

YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories (AP) — Residents of the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories fled an approaching wildfire Thursday, some driving hundreds of miles to safety and others signing up for emergency flights, the latest chapter in Canada’s worst fire season on record.

The fire, boosted by strong northern winds, was within 16 kilometers (10 miles) of Yellowknife’s northern edge, and people in the four areas at highest risk were told to leave as soon as possible, Fire Information Officer Mike Westwick said.

Officials worried the winds could push the flames toward the highway needed for evacuation from the city of 20,000, and although some rain was forecast, first responders were taking no chances. Westwick urged residents in other areas to leave by noon Friday.

“I want to be clear that the city is not in immediate danger and there’s a safe window for residents to leave the city by road and by air,” Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Territories, told a news conference. “Without rain, it is possible it will reach the city outskirts by the weekend.”

Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the U.S. — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 137,000 square kilometers (53,000 square miles), according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. As of Thursday, 1,053 wildfires were burning across the country, more than half of them out of control.

In the Northwest Territories alone, 268 wildfires have already burned more than 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles).

About 6,800 people in eight other communities in the territory have already been forced to evacuate their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, where the town was largely destroyed. Officials said everyone made it out alive.

A woman whose family evacuated the town of Hay River on Sunday told the CBC that their vehicle began melting as they drove through embers, the front window cracked and the vehicle began filling with smoke that made it difficult to see the road ahead.

“I was obviously scared the tire was going to break, our car was going to catch on fire and then it went from just embers to full smoke,” Lisa Mundy, who was traveling with her husband and their 6-year-old and 18-month-old children, told the CBC. She said they called 911 after they drove into the ditch a couple of times.

She told the CBC her son kept saying: “I don’t want to die, mommy.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was convening an urgent meeting with ministers and senior officials Thursday to discuss the evacuation.

Authorities said the intensive care unit at a Yellowknife hospital would close within 24 hours as the Northwest Territories health authority starts to reduce its services. In-patient units from Stanton Territorial Hospital would be moved in the coming days, if required, and most long-term care patients were transferred to institutions to the south, the Health and Social Services Authority said on its website.

Officials said evacuations have so far been safe and orderly, and that evacuees from Yellowknife who can’t find their own accommodations can get support in three centers in the nearby province of Alberta. The closest of those centers is more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) by road from Yellowknife.

Only those without the option of leaving by road should register for the evacuation flights, officials added. People who are immunocompromised or have conditions that put them at higher risk also were encouraged to sign up.

“We’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories,” Premier Caroline Cochrane posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. She urged residents to obey emergency management officials, traffic control devices and posted speed limits. “The country is watching, and our neighbours are keeping us in their thoughts and prayers.″

The evacuation order issued Wednesday night applies to the city of Yellowknife and the neighboring First Nations communities of Ndilo and Dettah.

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Indigenous communities have been hit hard by the wildfires, which threaten important cultural activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering native plants.

The U.S. has also seen devastating wildfires, including fires last week on the Hawaiian island of Maui that killed more than 100 people and destroyed a historic town.

Rural areas near California’s border with Oregon were placed under evacuation orders Wednesday after gusty winds from a thunderstorm sent a lightning-sparked wildfire racing through national forest lands, authorities said.

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