Remaining residents in Rae – one half of Behchokǫ̀ – will have no power overnight and are being told to flee to the community’s western tip in the face of an oncoming wildfire.
At 8:45pm on Tuesday, the NWT’s wildfire agency said fire ZFG015 had taken “an extraordinary run driven by winds reaching up to 50 km/h,” had crossed the Behchokǫ̀ access road at Frank Channel, and is now “in extremely close proximity” to Behchokǫ̀.
The fire is five kilometres east of Edzo and seven kilometres southeast of Rae, the territory stated.
“As the fire continues to be driven by these ferocious winds, it is highly likely to reach the community overnight,” the wildfire agency added.
“Emergency responders are evacuating the area and regrouping at a new base of operations at a safe distance. All response activities have stopped for now to protect life safety.
“We know this is very difficult to hear – and our hearts go out to everyone who is watching this play out away from their homes.”
Wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said by email that the community is not necessarily lost, despite the grim prognosis.
“Good work has been done over the last few days to protect the community,” he wrote.
“Structure protection has been set up to the east of the community. This can provide some level of protection to the community as it will wet the grounds. This can discourage ignition and protect buildings.
“Structures have been sprayed down with specialized gel designed to discourage ignition due to flying embers along Highway 3.
“However, everyone needs to be prepared for structures to be lost. This is an extremely serious situation. We will not know whether anything has been lost until it is once again safe to access the area.”
At 8:30pm on Tuesday, Behchokǫ̀ senior administrator Pushp Seth instructed all remaining Rae residents to head for Bay Island, at its western edge, for safety.
Meanwhile, the NWT Power Corporation said on Facebook: “Power will remain out overnight in Rae as NTPC was unable to find a safe way to transport an operator to the Frank Channel plant. The situation will be reassessed in the morning. Power in Edzo is currently stable.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” the Tłı̨chǫ Government said to Rae residents in a Facebook post.
The next significant update from the NWT’s wildfire agency is expected early on Wednesday.
The fire earlier crossed Highway 3 at kilometre 278, around 30 km east of Behchokǫ̀.
Wildfire information officer Frank McKay said strong southeasterly winds, gusting up to 50 km/h, are affecting ZF015 as though blowing oxygen into a campfire.
“The wind will be pushing the fire probably westward if it’s got some fuel to burn in its path,” he said earlier on Tuesday.
The lightning-caused wildfire has burned more than 63,000 hectares so far.
Highway 3 is now closed between kilometres 246 to 334 – the full stretch between Behchokǫ̀ and Yellowknife. Conditions could “change quickly with little to no warning,” the department stated.
Wildfire damage is also suspected to be the cause of a power outage in both Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀. The NWT Power Corporation has struggled to land a helicopter at its Frank Channel power plant to restart power supply to the community, and the fire is believed to now be extremely close to the plant.
Six crews are working to manage the wildfire along with a structure protection specialist, four helicopters and air tankers. Their work has included ignition operations and maintaining sprinklers on structures at risk along Highway 3. The tankers, however, struggled to operate on Tuesday as visibility dropped in the smoke.
Through the intergovernmental Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, McKay said, more personnel are expected from Alaska and New Brunswick to help.
What McKay called an “unprecedented” wildfire season in the territory has strained resources. So far, 152 wildfires have burned more than 1.1 million hectares across the NWT and five communities have had to evacuate.
How RCMP planned to protect Behchokǫ̀
Residents of Behchokǫ̀, where more than 2,000 people are estimated to live, were told to evacuate on Monday night.
On Tuesday, the Tłı̨chǫ Government stated in a post on social media that approximately 850 people had been safely evacuated from the community, including around 150 by bus. It asked evacuees to register at the Yellowknife multiplex, where an evacuation centre has been set up, regardless of where they are staying.
NWT RCMP spokesperson Cpl Matt Halstead said earlier on Tuesday, before the evening warning of the fire’s proximity, that detachment members were patrolling the community and responding to calls for service as needed.
He said a mobile command post, which he described as a large truck with office space and computer and phone ports, had been expected to arrive in Edzo but had to return to Yellowknife due to the highway closure. That mobile command post could eventually provide a base of operations for RCMP in Behchokǫ̀ if the wildfire is fought back.
Access to a boat in Behchokǫ̀ will allow officers to access Rae and Edzo in the event of a road closure, Halstead added.
“The detachment will maintain operations in the community as long as it is safe for the officers to do so,” he wrote in an email.
In a statement posted to social media on Monday night, Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty said the safety of Behchokǫ̀ residents is the top priority.
“Please check on your loved ones, and stay calm,” the statement read.
“Being prepared and taking care of each other are Tłı̨chǫ values that we will keep us strong through these uncertain times.”
People with homes and cabins along a stretch of Highway 3 between Behchokǫ̀ and Yellowknife were previously told to leave and head to either community on Friday.
Other wildfires burning in the area include two lightning-caused fires more than 275 km northwest of Behchokǫ̀ and three fires burning between 30 and 365 km north of the community. NWT Fire said those wildfires are being monitored and are not currently threatening cabins or other infrastructure.