A notice posted by the community government stated residents with their own transportation should head to Yellowknife, despite Highway 3 to the city being imperilled by the same wildfire, which was less than two kilometres from the road on Monday. As of 6pm, the road was open – watch the NWT Department of Infrastructure’s website for highway updates.
Residents should “evacuate by tonight,” that notice stated, urging people to head for Yellowknife’s multiplex, which will again be transformed into an evacuee shelter.
Behchokǫ̀ is the fifth NWT community this year to face evacuation over a wildfire, following Hay River, the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Sambaa K’e and Wekweètì.
The Monday evening evacuation marked the swift upgrading of an advisory issued on Monday afternoon that had instructed residents to “be prepared to evacuate on short notice,” but which authorities had stated was a precautionary measure.
The fire that triggered the evacuation is fire ZF015.
Even though the NWT’s wildfire agency issued a Monday update stating Behchokǫ̀ was “not currently at threat,” an evacuation order followed less than an hour later.
ZF015 has burned more than 60,000 hectares at last count and was responsible for an evacuation of homes and cabins along a stretch of Highway 3, east of the community, over the weekend.
The fire began just west of Awry Lake at the end of June and has since spread south toward the stretch of Highway 3 that links Behchokǫ̀ and Yellowknife.
The highway has faced intermittent closure as a result of smoke both from the fire and from operations being carried out to try to stop the fire reaching Behchokǫ̀.
Frank McKay, a fire information officer, said on Monday that six crews totalling 24 firefighters, a 14-person incident management team and a structure protection specialist are tackling ZF015, alongside four helicopters and air tanker support as required.
The fire is 25 kilometres east of Behchokǫ̀, McKay said by email.
Air quality in Behchokǫ̀ was extraordinarily poor on Monday, reaching into the 800s on the AQI scale. By comparison, Yellowknife’s worst readings over the past week – which has brought filthy air to the territorial capital – tended to extend no higher than the 500s.
The evacuation is understood to be taking place because of wildfire threat rather than a deterioration in air quality.
On Monday, the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs told Cabin Radio: “Community evacuations are not a tactic used for wildfire smoke. Wildfire smoke can travel long distances and while another community may be free of smoke one moment, it may be inundated with smoke the next.
“Most communities in the NWT and beyond are impacted by poor air quality due to wildfire smoke this summer. Residents are encouraged to follow wildfire smoke measures and precautions issued by the healthcare officials.”