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  • Lifelong Yellowknife resident Chad Hinchey was on the road by 3 p.m. Wednesday, a couple of hours before residents were ordered to leave, and drove almost nine hours to High River in Northern Alberta.Chad Hinchey/Handout

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Residents in the capital of the Northwest Territories have been ordered to leave their city as wildfires threaten to reach the community, on the north shore of Great Slave Lake and 1,450 kilometres north of Edmonton, by Friday at noon.

Premier Caroline Cochrane urged Yellowknife’s 20,000 residents to obey the evacuation order, which demands citizens be out of the city by Friday at noon. The order, issued Wednesday evening, also applies to Ndılǫ, Dettah and Ingraham Trail.

“I know we are all tired of the word ‘unprecedented’ but there’s no other way to describe the situation in the Northwest Territories,” she said in an update.

Flames are 17 kilometres from Yellowknife’s municipal boundary and officials said fire will reach the outskirts of the city by Saturday and the Ingraham Trail by Friday unless it rains. Yellowknife is on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, 1,450 kilometres north of Edmonton. Geography, coupled with a plethora of forest fires along the escape route, will complicate the evacuation process.

“We must take steps to stay calm and not make decisions that are going to put other people and yourselves in danger,” Ms. Cochrane said. “When you don’t evacuate, you put yourselves and you put our first responders at risk.”

What’s the difference between an evacuation alert and an evacuation order in Canada?

Officials asked those with vehicles to start evacuating and said buses and planes will be arranged for those who can’t escape via the highway. The first air evacuation is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, according to the government. Calgary will serve as the “initial” host community, Emily King, an official with NWT, said during the update.

Evacuees should stay with friends and family if possible, Ms. King said. Those without a place to stay are encouraged to evacuate by air as NWT works with Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to identify other host communities, she said.

Shane Thompson, the territorial minister of Environment and Climate Change, said the NWT will rely on the provinces receiving evacuees to track where displaced residents end up as thousands of people flee the north.

“Alberta has a system of registering people and then they track the people that way,” he said, adding NWT is working with other jurisdictions to gather and share evacuee information.

Officials asked those at greatest risk – along the Ingraham Trail, in Dettah, Kam Lake, Grace Lake and Engle Business District – to evacuate as soon as possible. Officials also said they are working to help vulnerable citizens escape.

“We’re not leaving anybody behind,” Mr. Thompson said.

Yellowknife on alert with fire nearing city’s edge, B.C. could see blazes grow in coming days

The government cautioned against trying to evacuate by boat to an island or cabin given the air quality is expected to decline as the fires in the area rage.

Pets will be allowed on all flights, although they must be crated on commercial carriers, according to NWT’s evacuation instructions. On Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft, pets should be crated whenever possible, but cats that are harnessed and dogs that are leashed will be permitted.

While officials urged residents to leave the area, the government said facilities in Yellowknife will be available for residents who wish to shelter in place.

Officials ordered residents in Hay River and Enterprise to evacuate earlier this week. The fire was expected to reach Hay River, on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake, Wednesday evening, but a wind shift caused the blaze to stall according to a social media post from the territorial fire service.

Evacuees arriving safely in Alberta after fleeing wildfires in the Northwest Territories recount harrowing tales of driving through flame-covered highways. (Aug. 16, 2023)

The Canadian Press

There are about 30 people remaining in the community and officials are trying to organize an airlift for them to leave, an official said on the update. NWT, on social media, said crews are getting out of the fire’s path for their own safety and repositioning to assist in other areas. A team from Alberta is laying down fire retardant to try to stop the fire’s spread, NWT said.

Fire ripped through Enterprise, about 440 kilometres south of Yellowknife, earlier this week, decimating a key spot where travellers from the capital would previously fuel up. Mr. Thompson said NWT’s infrastructure department will have a tanker of fuel available along the road. Tow trucks will also be out, he said.

There is also fuel available in Fort Providence, about 300 kilometres away from Yellowknife, Mr. Thompson said.

The RCMP in Yellowknife on Tuesday evening advised non-essential civilian staff and members’ families to pre-emptively evacuate.

There are roughly 240 fires burning across the territory and thousands of people have already been displaced, with many airlifted to Alberta. More than 2.1 million hectares of land has been destroyed by wildfires in NWT, about four times the size of Prince Edward Island, so far this year. Evacuations have been ordered for Fort Smith and Jean Marie River, the K’atl’odeeche First Nation and some cabin communities. The fires have torn through homes and other structures, closed highways and upended wireless telecommunications in certain areas – leaving residents essentially in the dark for emergency information.

The City of Calgary is preparing to accept evacuees who have been told to leave Yellowknife as a wildfire approaches. Calgary says it has enough space for at least 5,000 evacuees, but the city will accommodate more if needed. (Aug. 17, 2023)

The Canadian Press

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with NWT’s premier to discuss the situation and federal support, including the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces and aircraft. Mr. Trudeau reaffirmed Ottawa’s support and said the leaders will remain in close contact.

Ms. Cochrane said the Prime Minister assured her NWT had the federal government’s “full support, and their resources are at our fingertips.”

Resources for N.W.T. residents:

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