The Northwest Territories government issued new warnings for residents to evacuate immediately as rapidly spreading wildfires threaten several communities, cutting off highway access and restricting emergency services.
“The past 24 hours have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in the Northwest Territories,” said Shane Thompson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, during a press conference Monday. “What we’re experiencing in the South Slave Region is truly unprecedented. Consistent, hot, dry, windy conditions have fuelled wild and unpredictable wildfires.”
The Kakisa fire raced nearly 40 kilometres toward the town of Hay River on Sunday because of high winds, forcing residents to leave their homes and damaging electrical lines and structures in its path. Data and voice communications to the town through service provider Northwestel were compromised, limiting emergency responder communications.
Mr. Thompson said there were extensive structural losses in the hamlet of Enterprise, also under an evacuation order west of Hay River, and firefighting efforts were overpowered by the blaze.
Fire information officer Mike Westwick, at the Monday press conference, said “under no circumstances” would firefighters have been put in front of Kakisa on Sunday. “Our first job, at the end of the day, is to get folks home safe. On a day like that, it ain’t a question of numbers. It’s a question of getting people out safe.”
Other communities under evacuation orders include the town of Fort Smith and K’atl’odeeche First Nation, near the Alberta-NWT boundary where members of the Canadian Forces have been deployed to help stifle the blazes. Firefighters from Canada and abroad are also joining the fight, and helicopters and water bombers were en route Monday.
Homeowners on North Prosperous Lake, North Prelude Lake, and River Lake – all north of Yellowknife – and those in the small community of Jean Marie River have also been ordered to leave their homes.
The safest way out is by plane in certain communities, given the closings of Highway 5 and 2, stressed the NWT government in a social media post on Monday. “GO TO THE AIRPORT NOW,” it said. “Conditions are dangerous and will continue to worsen.”
The Town of Hay River, in a social media post on Monday, said it was critical that residents board a plane travelling to Fort McMurray that morning saying the road exiting the town was “not passable.” Hundreds of people have already been airlifted to northern Alberta cities such as Grande Prairie, High Level and Fort McMurray.
Evacuation alerts have also been issued for at least three other communities, including Kakisa, warning residents to be ready to leave within a one-hour notice. The town of Inuvik, the third largest in NWT, is under an evacuation notice (less severe than an alert) and residents have been told to prepare emergency kits.
Local officials report all long-term care residents and hospital patients have been transported to Yellowknife.
There were 234 active wildfires in NWT, as of Monday afternoon. More than two million hectares have burned so far this year, already making it one of the worst wildfire seasons on record with weeks left to go.
Despite fires within 30 kilometres of the territorial capital of Yellowknife, the most populated community in the NWT, the municipal government stressed that it is not under threat in a social media post on Monday. It did say precautionary measures are being taken but did not provide specifics. Smoke and ash have blanketed Yellowknife.
It has been a record-breaking year for Canada as a whole with blazes torching more than 13.3 million hectares of land, severely straining firefighting services. In British Columbia, heat and powerful winds are expected to settle over the southern half of the province this week, which could heighten the wildfire risk.
The provincial wildfire service said 11 of the 375 fires burning in B.C. are ranked as fires of note, meaning they are highly visible or threaten people or property. The Ross Moore Lake fire south of Kamloops covers more than 72 square kilometres, and on Sunday prompted a revised evacuation order for two properties east of Lac Le Jeune.
With a report from The Canadian Press