Chad Hinchey didn’t wait for an official evacuation order. Early Wednesday afternoon, the aspiring realtor and lifelong Yellowknifer packed up his Dodge Ram Rebel and left the isolated capital of the Northwest Territories. The writing, he says, was in the sky – huge, white and grey plumes of smoke belching into the atmosphere from an out-of-control wildfire burning near the city’s edge.
An eerie, dark yellow haze shrouded the city of 20,000, lending an apocalyptic vibe that only heightened the growing panic enveloping the community, whose leadership was still mulling over whether to order an evacuation.
From Vancouver, John Vaillant, author of Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, which chronicles the 2016 wildfire that obliterated much of Fort McMurray, was watching the situation unfold with increasing frustration: “These fires, these 21st century fires, move so fast that you you can find yourself looking at it from a distance, then literally half an hour later running for your life.”
Mr. Vaillant felt the city’s leadership was wasting valuable time, the same way officials in Fort Mac had in 2016. “No one could believe how fast that fire moved,” he said. “But what climate change is showing us over and over again, are things we’ve never seen before.”
What’s tricky about Yellowknife is that there are major fires burning to the west, north and east of the city, he added. “So that means no matter what direction the wind blows, it’s almost certain to move one of those fires in the direction of Yellowknife, or across the highway – their only escape route.”
“It would be foolish to bet on the wind co-operating. It sure didn’t co-operate in the Lahaina. It sure didn’t co-operate in Enterprise, or Slave Lake, or Fort Mac.”
Around 7:30 Wednesday evening, the territorial government pulled the plug, ordering all residents to exit the capital. They were given a deadline of noon Friday to get out.
But like Mr. Hinchey, many didn’t bother to wait around for the call.
Aidan and Simone Cartwright packed their two children, two large dogs and three quails into a Toyota Highlander SUV, and set off down the highway early evening on Wednesday.
The Cartwrights passed numerous fires on their drive. At times, the flames were so close you could “hit them with a rock,” says Mr. Cartwright. His children, who recently read The Paper Bag Princess, told each other “there was a dragon out there blowing fire.”
Video from Yellowknife wildfire evacuees shows heavy smoke over a highway with some nearby flames as they drive out of the Northwest Territories capital on August 16.
The Globe and Mail
At Fort Providence, where the No. 3 highway crosses the Mackenzie River, there was already a long line of people waiting to gas up. “It was nuts,” Mr. Cartwright said. “We were lucky we brought gas otherwise it would have been a two-hour wait.”
A little beyond it, Mr. Hinchey, 30, who was travelling slightly ahead of the Cartwrights, passed the town of Enterprise, which burned to the ground on Monday. The sight filled him with fear and dread.
The sky went so black he could barely see the road in front of him. It was like being on a dark road with no streetlights, he said. The next 40 to 50 kilometres were “just barren,” he added. “You can tell the fire had just torched through there. Buildings are gone. The whole town is gone.”
“Being a northerner, you know what these communities go through – how hard they’ve worked for what they’ve built. I just felt so hurt for all those people.”
The still burning embers outside Enterprise are seared into Mr. Cartwright’s memory. “It looked like hundreds of people just had little lighters or campfires in the bushes,” Mr. Cartwright said. In the distance, the sky glowed red above the town of Hay River, which is under its own evacuation order.
Mr. Hinchey was making the drive alone. His friend had taken his dog with him when he left Yellowknife on Tuesday. His wife, who works as a biomedical engineering technologist at the Stanton Territorial Hospital, had to stay behind in Yellowknife. The hospital is evacuating patients, but she maintains and fixes the equipment used in transporting them, so she can’t leave until all the patients have gone.
“It’s stressful,” said Mr. Hinchey. “She was really keen on making sure that we are all safe but the tough part for us is I don’t know exactly when she will get out. She doesn’t know either.”
When Mr. Hinchey crossed into Alberta around midnight, he passed locals handing out flats of water and fuel to evacuees, and residents offering space on their farms for people to camp.
The Cartwrights arrived in the province a couple hours later, eventually pulling over to get some rest. At least a dozen other cars with NWT licence plates were parked in the rest stop. After a few hours, they continued south to High Level. “It was full of Yellowknifers – all gassing up. The Tim Hortons was basically like a meeting centre,” Mr. Cartwright said. The family – children, dogs and quails – is headed for Moberly Lake, B.C., where Mr. Cartwright’s parents live.
“We’re basically heading over there for the short term. If the weekend goes well, then we’ll probably just turn around from there. But if Yellowknife burns down, then we’ll probably head to Calgary for the longer term,” he said.
Mr. Hinchey made his way to his father-in-law’s home in Edmonton, where he arrived on Thursday, around 3 p.m. He didn’t crack a smile until hitting an intersection near the city limits. He happened to pull up alongside one of his closest friends, a fellow Yellowknifer, and one of his groomsmen. “We had a good chuckle.”
Aron Abadi wasn’t confident the Friday flight to Toronto he booked for his wife Zayd Mohhamad and their two small boys Eyosias and Naod would be safe. So the couple cancelled their tickets – and ate the $1,500 in nonrefundable fares – and frantically began searching for a ride out of town.
During a sleepless night Wednesday, the family secured a lift in the truck of Steve Payne, with whom Mr. Abadi co-owns a local barber shop.
“I’m so happy, me and my wife were almost crying,” said Mr. Abadi, who was recruited from Ottawa to cut hair in Yellowknife by Mr. Payne more than a decade earlier.
Reached Thursday afternoon about halfway through their 15-hour ride to Edmonton, the business partners said they hadn’t even turned on any music during the first eight or so hours, instead chatting endlessly about the emergency, their families and how they planned to return their business to its pre-pandemic glory (“Maybe get a beer licence?”).
Mr. Payne, a Newfoundlander who moved to the territory 27 years ago, plans to spend some time living out of his camper at his cousin’s property in Beaumont, south of Edmonton, along with his two sisters, who also evacuated Yellowknife with their RVs.
Mr. Payne’s wife, their 22-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son were already there, having evacuated a day earlier.
Mr. Abadi says for now his family is digging into their savings for the two sets of flights to Toronto, so his wife and children can spend up to a month there with relatives while he cuts hair in Edmonton and crashes with a cousin.
For folks in Yellowknife, the situation is absolutely uncertain right now, says Mr. Vaillant. “We don’t know how this is going to end. The people staying behind may not be able to fly out – if the smoke moves a certain way, if the ash is blowing too thickly, planes won’t be able to fly.”
The people up there are doing everything right – they’ve got sprinklers up, fires breaks up, they’re bombing the fire line, he says. “But the embers don’t care. The wind doesn’t care. It’s like trying to stop a bird with a fence. No matter how good a fence you build, the bird is just going to fly right over it. There are limits to what they can do.”
The combination of wind, freakishly hot temperatures, years of steadily decreasing precipitation and trending dryness for the last decade in the boreal forest have created a situation that is more volatile than most people are used to, he says.
“That’s a real mind bender for human beings. We weren’t built to respond to changes like that in our environment. It’s too sudden. It’s too radical. It’s too strange. But it’s really happening – over and over and over again.
With reports from Mark Rendell, Mike Hager and Alanna Smith