The deadline for residents to leave Yellowknife has passed but more than three dozen hospital patients remain in the Northwest Territories capital, making some of the region’s most vulnerable citizens the last to evacuate as wildfires engulf the area.
Despite a significant effort to discharge and relocate hospital patients over the past few days, 38 patients remain at The Stanton Territorial Hospital, according to Alexander Keefe, a spokesman for Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.
These are “more complex” inpatients and require medical care and support during transit, he said. “The goal is to have the hospital patient evacuation completed in the next 24 hours,” Mr. Keefe said in an e-mail Friday afternoon.
NWT officials on Wednesday evening ordered Yellowknife residents to evacuate by Friday at noon. The government on Friday noted it started evacuating long-term care facilities on Monday and defended the hospital’s slow evacuation.
“Arranging a patient transport for an entire hospital is complex and requires a lot of planning and resources. This takes time,” Mr. Keefe said. “We are confident our evacuation timeline for the hospital is safe, this plan was put in action as soon as we knew an evacuation order for the community was forthcoming, and was dependent on the availability of outside aeromedical evacuation resources.”
Crews continue to beef up fire protections in and around Yellowknife, home to roughly 22,000 people on the north shore of Great Slave Lake. Roughly 19,000 Yellowknife residents have funneled south, largely into Alberta, by land and air. Shane Thompson, NWT Minister for Environment and Climate Change, in a press conference Friday said about 15,000 Yellowknife residents left by road and another 3,800 by air. Officials believe there are still about 2,600 people in the city and are asking the estimated 1,600 non-essential personnel still on the ground to leave as soon as possible.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with evacuees at an Edmonton reception centre on Friday.
Chief Warrant Officer Richard Francoeur, during the Friday evening press conference, said a C-17 was on the tarmac in Yellowknife and crews were working with staff from the hospital to evacuate the “last patients” from the city.
“The aircraft had to get ready by Trenton to be able to come down here to sustain the intake of those patients,” he said.
Asked why logistics were not organized before the official evacuation order, Kimberly Riles, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority’s chief executive, said the situation developed very quickly.
“We had actually undertaken the initiation of hospital evacuation plan that was going to be phased over a number of days. But with the pivot to a full evacuation order, we went to a single-phased request for a mass air medical evacuation,” she said.
The logistics of getting the necessary resources into Yellowknife, she reiterated, took time.
Ms. Riles said there were 39 patients being evacuated, one more than the figure her department provided earlier in the day. Most of the remaining patients are expected to end up in facilities in British Columbia.
The hospital’s emergency department will continue to operate in order to serve the essential workers still in the city.
NWT will try to “support” reuniting family with evacuated hospital patients as it stabilizes services. But its first priority, Mr. Keefe said, is safe transfer of care.
On Thursday, NWT co-ordinated an air evacuation for certain outpatients – people who are mobile and can get on a plane with little or no assistance – including dialysis patients and a group of pregnant people, he noted. NWT has also arranged roughly 290 “patient movements” in response to wildfires engulfing various parts of the territory, including Fort Smith and Hay River.
Federal Defence Minister Bill Blair said the first military evacuation flight from Yellowknife took place Thursday night, with a Hercules aircraft carrying 79 long-term care residents to Edmonton.
Mr. Blair, in an update Friday, said the military has aircraft capable of moving patients, such as those on a stretcher or in a wheelchair, as well as medical personnel.
“The logistics of moving people from the hospital, we had to make sure that we had the right equipment, but also the right personnel so that it can be done safely,” Mr. Blair said. “The logistics of that have been worked out.”
Mr. Blair noted that the evacuation of Fort McMurray in 2016 evolved more rapidly and with a greater sense of urgency. The fire threatening Yellowknife is 15 kilometres northwest of the city, according to the most recent information from the territory. Many residents left the city, which is 1,450 kilometres north of Edmonton, prior to Wednesday’s mandatory order.
“The fires that are encroaching on Yellowknife, there’s still ongoing efforts to slow the encroachment and the advance of those fires into the community,” Mr. Blair said. “But I think officials, quite appropriately, have been working very carefully to ensure that there was a methodical, staged and appropriately timed evacuation of people from the community.”
Peter Houweling, vice-president of business development with the Det’on Cho Corp., said “pretty well every major contractor” in Yellowknife has joined forces to build fire breaks and set up sprinkler systems in hopes of slowing any blaze that reaches the community.
He said between 20 and 30 kilometres of the city’s northwest and western side are protected with fire breaks approximately 100 metres wide. Building the breaks requires workers to remove any fuel sources and knock down vegetation so that fires can’t traverse across the top of trees.
Several residents of the Northwest Territories have stopped in the town of Peace River, Alberta during their evacuation. Some worry about what they have left behind and how long they'll be gone. (Aug. 18, 2023)
The Canadian Press
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Houweling said they were focused on finishing the sprinklers to provide Yellowknife with the “utmost protection.” He said they are drawing from nearby bodies of water and creating systems with pressurized sprinkler heads to dampen flames and embers in the wooded areas on the outskirts of town and some residential sites.
“As we monitor the fire to the west, we will continue to work as long as we can in a safe manner. If that changes, which we’re at the mercy of the wind and Mother Nature, we could then deploy focus in other areas as we do have several fires around Yellowknife,” he said, estimating support from up to 100 tradespeople and labourers, in conjunction with wildfire personnel. He calls them a “small army.”
Yellowknife mayor Rebecca Alty urged stragglers to leave the city. “We’ve got to take this seriously. We don’t need volunteers and we don’t need vigilantes driving around watching for fires,” she said Friday.
Yellowknife shuttered its evacuee reception centre Friday afternoon. Mike Westwick, NWT’s wildfire spokesman, said crews have identified strategic spots in Yellowknife where remaining residents could shelter should flames encroach on the city.
Yellowknife’s airport remains open for evacuation flights, medevacs, firefighting and military-related flights, NWT said. Commercial flights out of Yellowknife will stop Friday, after the last scheduled flight leaves, the territorial government said.
Alberta Health Services, the provincial health authority, is preparing to support between 150 and 200 home-care patients from NWT. AHS has placed 48 continuing-care patients from NWT in facilities in Alberta, according to spokesperson Kerry Williamson.
AHS is also treating four acute-care patients and 19 dialysis patients from NWT at various sites in Alberta, he said. It is supporting about 30 obstetrical patients at a number of sites in Red Deer, Calgary and Edmonton.
In Vancouver, health care professionals are “ready to receive” medical evacuees from NWT on Friday, according to Peggy Kulmala, a spokeswoman for the provincial Ministry of Health. B.C.’s Health Minister on Thursday said the province expected 55 patients to arrive in the province.
Calgary expected 26 evacuation flights, carrying 2,300 people, to arrive from Yellowknife on Friday. Alberta’s largest city welcomed 15 evacuation flights carrying 1,269 passengers on Thursday.
NWT officials, in the Friday evening update, said Calgary has welcomed 5,000 evacuees, hitting its initial capacity. Evacuation flights out of Yellowknife will now head to Winnipeg.
Kieron Testart spent Friday with a small group of people going door to door in the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, just northeast of Yellowknife, helping people evacuate by providing transport to the airport. An emergency co-ordinator with the First Nation, Mr. Testart told The Globe and Mail that about 30 people remain and will stay as long as possible to protect the community from the advancing wildfire.
“There are plenty of people who are staying behind who know how to live off the land who are seasoned in fire prevention and fire safety,” Mr. Testart said.
Mr. Testart said he’s fearful that these severe wildfire seasons will become a regular occurrence and will only get worse. He called for more investments from the federal government in climate-change mitigation efforts, particularly for the north where severe weather events are increasing.
“We need additional resources for climate-change adaptation and mitigation and to manage crises like this and we need all eyes in Canada and the world paying attention to what is happening right now,” he told The Globe Friday.
“I think this is rapidly becoming the new normal and the north is chronically behind on things like critical infrastructure and the resources we need to keep things going.”
With reports from Xiao Xu and The Canadian Press
Resources for N.W.T. residents:
- N.W.T. residents who need to evacuate can register here. Information for evacuees can be found here.
- Territorial wildfire updates can be found here. Report smoke or fire by calling 1-877-698-3473.
- Emergency response resources can be found here.
- The latest community statuses, including notices, alerts and orders, can be found here.