Thousands flee as ‘unprecedented’ fires hit Canada’s Northwest Territories

Officials say 20,000 residents of Yellowknife are leaving via land and air, but the northern city is not in ‘immediate danger’.

Vehicles leave Yellowknife as a wildfire approaches
Vehicles leave Yellowknife on the only highway in or out of the city in Canada's Northwest Territories after a state of emergency was declared due to wildfires, on August 16, 2023 [Pat Kane/Reuters]

Canadians have crammed into a local airport and lined up along a major highway out of the Northwest Territories to escape wildfires, a day after authorities warned the blazes were moving closer to the territory’s capital and largest city, Yellowknife.

The Canadian government said Prime Justin Trudeau Minister will convene an emergency committee, known as the Incident Response Group, on Thursday to discuss the wildfires – the latest in a series of widespread blazes to hit the country so far this year.

Authorities had called on Yellowknife’s nearly 20,000 residents to leave the city by Friday, and an evacuation order was also issued for surrounding communities.

“I have asthma and the wildfire smoke was making it increasingly difficult to do anything,” Tiffany Champagne, who was waiting for a flight at the Yellowknife airport, told Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC. “I’m just kind of mentally checked out at this point.”

The airport had warned residents on Wednesday to arrive at least two hours ahead of their flights because of “increased passenger traffic”.

Canada is going through its worst wildfire season on record with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country, including more than 200 in the Northwest Territories alone.

Caroline Cochrane, the premier of the sprawling and sparsely populated territory, described the crisis as “unprecedented” and urged residents to remain calm and follow warning signs without making “rash” decisions.

“We will get through this. Now more than ever is the time to ask for help if you need it and to work together,” Cochrane wrote in a social media post early on Thursday.

Later on Thursday, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty told CBC that people have been leaving the area via the highway to the south and on commercial planes, and that authorities are also planning evacuation flights.

“The important thing to stress is the fire isn’t here, yet,” she said. “We’re doing this ahead of time, so that we’re able to complete the evacuation before the risk continues to move.”

Alty added that she and other officials will continue to update residents on the situation. “To leave your community and not know how your house is doing, I know will be a big stress on a lot of people,” the mayor said.

She also said special teams were cutting trees near the city to prevent flames from spreading and planned to use fire retardant on certain historic and logistically important buildings to protect them from the fires.

Red van driving by burning bushes on the side of the road
This screengrab from a video shows vehicles driving on the highway as people evacuate from Yellowknife on August 16, 2023 [Jordan Straker/AFP Photo]

Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Northwest Territories, said on Wednesday that without rain, the fires could reach Yellowknife in days.

“I want to be clear that the city is not in immediate danger and there’s a safe window for residents to leave the city by road and by air,” he said.

The territorial fire service said in a statement on Facebook on Thursday that the Northwest Territories faced “very tough days ahead” as winds expected on Friday and Saturday “would push the fire towards Yellowknife”.

The city, which is home to about half of the population of the Northwest Territories, sits about 1,400km (870 miles) north of Edmonton, Alberta.

“The territories have never seen anything like this before in terms of wildfire … it’s an unimaginable situation for so many,” Mike Westwick, the Northwest Territories’ fire information officer, told CBC.

Dry conditions and high temperatures have made wildfires more frequent across the world.

More than 100 people were killed in blazes that began last week on the Hawaii island of Maui, and the Spanish island of Tenerife also has been battling what officials describe as “out of control” wildfires.

City of Yellowknife workers and firefighters monitor sprinkler systems in a neighbourhood at the city's edge, after a state of emergency was declared, in Yellowknife
City of Yellowknife workers and firefighters monitor sprinkler systems in a neighbourhood at the city’s edge, August 15, 2023 [Pat Kane/Reuters]

Scientists say climate change has made wildfires more frequent and more difficult to control in recent years.

While Canada’s fires have mostly raged in sparsely populated, remote areas, smoke from the blazes has worsened air quality in large parts of the country as well as in northern areas of the United States.

Experts say fires generally are started either by human activity or by natural causes, including lightning and volcanoes.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies