On August 17th, Canadian firefighting teams were engaged in a battle to prevent wildfires from encroaching upon the northern city of Yellowknife. All 20,000 residents of the city were evacuating via car and plane following the issuance of an evacuation order. As thick smoke enveloped the capital of the vast and sparsely inhabited Northwest Territories, water bombers flew at low altitudes over Yellowknife. The authorities reported that the fire, which was moving gradually, had reached a point 15 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of the city. If no rainfall occurred, the fire could potentially reach the outskirts of Yellowknife by Saturday.
Anticipating challenging days ahead, the territorial fire service shared on Facebook, “Very tough days ahead – with two days of northwest to west-northwest winds on Friday and Saturday, which would push fire towards Yellowknife.”
In the Pacific province of British Columbia, which had been enduring unusually intense blazes during that year, officials cautioned residents to prepare for extremely hazardous fire conditions. Cliff Chapman, the director of the wildfire service, addressed the press, saying, “This weather event has the potential to be the most challenging 24 to 48 hours of the summer from a fire perspective. We anticipate rapid expansion as well as challenges to our resources from the north to the south.
Meanwhile, in Yellowknife, a multitude of individuals formed lines outside a local high school, awaiting transportation to the airport for one of the five planned evacuation flights to the neighboring province of Alberta. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened a meeting of the Incident Response Group to discuss the fire situation, a group composed of senior officials and ministers that convenes during crises.
Defence Minister Bill Blair, speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) after the meeting, assured that the federal government was closely monitoring the evacuation efforts and stood ready to promptly airlift residents if land routes became impassable.
This particular wildfire season marked Canada’s most severe on record, with over 1,000 active fires raging across the country, including 265 in the Northwest Territories. Experts attributed the worsening wildfire issue to climate change. Drought had played a significant role in the number and intensity of fires that year, with elevated temperatures exacerbating the conditions. Abnormally dry weather had affected a large portion of Canada.
Shane Thompson, the territorial environment minister, explained that the evacuation order had been declared late on Wednesday to give people sufficient time to evacuate before weather conditions deteriorated. The conditions are favourable right now, but things will change on Saturday, he said, “The urgency is that fire changes drastically.”
Overall, approximately 65% of the Territories’ population, totaling 46,000 individuals, would be evacuated. Given the limited infrastructure in the Northwest Territories, there was just one two-lane road leading out of Yellowknife to the southern province of Alberta.
Alberta had established three official reception centers for evacuees traveling by road, although the closest center was more than 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) away from Yellowknife. Residents were required to leave Yellowknife by noon on Friday (1800 GMT).
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty conveyed that specialized teams were engaging in tree clearance near the city to prevent the spread of flames. They also planned to employ fire retardant and ensure the functionality of sprinkler systems, she informed the CBC.
Canada’s two largest airlines responded to social media backlash about inflated prices by adding flights from Yellowknife and implementing fare caps. A portion of the evacuees would be flown to Calgary, Alberta. Iain Bushell, Calgary’s emergency management director, assured that the city could accommodate and provide sustenance for up to 5,000 people, saying, “We are prepared to house them and help them for as long as they need.”
In a social media update, the Northwest Territories fire service reported that a fire that had posed a threat to Hay River, a community of around 3,000 individuals located further south on Great Slave Lake, had halted its advance overnight.
Up until that point, an area of about 134,000 square kilometers (52,000 square miles) of land in Canada had been consumed by fire, surpassing the 10-year average by more than six times. At some time throughout the season, approximately 200,000 people had to leave their homes.
Mike Westwick, the territories’ fire information officer, remarked to the CBC, “The territories have never seen anything like this before in terms of wildfire … it’s an unimaginable situation for so many.”
The wildfires had also impacted industrial and energy production. Diamond producer De Beers noted that its Gahcho Kue mine, situated approximately 280 kilometers (170 miles) northeast of Yellowknife, was still operational, although numerous employees from surrounding communities had been evacuated.
In May 2016, a massive fire had decimated 10% of structures in the energy-producing northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray, leading to the evacuation of 90,000 residents and a disruption of over a million barrels per day of oil output. In June 2021, 90% of structures in the British Columbia village of Lytton had been razed to the ground, occurring a day after the location recorded the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada.