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‘As rumours continue,’ NWT Fire says Yellowknife isn’t threatened

Hashtag no filter. Yellowknife's air on August 4, 2023. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Hashtag no filter. Yellowknife's air on August 4, 2023. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

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Yellowknifers watched warily on Friday as smoke rolled back into the city and a wildfire shuffled closer from the west.

But by the end of Friday evening, NWT Fire said fire ZF015 remained no threat to the city and crews were “looking towards more favourable forecasts beginning Sunday.”

NWT Fire had anticipated conditions on Friday and Saturday that were likely to be “extremely challenging” for fire crews and drive ZF015, which had earlier forced an evacuation of Behchokǫ̀, back toward Yellowknife.

By 6pm on Friday, an evacuation alert for Boundary Creek – on the highway west of Yellowknife – had been upgraded to an evacuation order. NWT Fire said ZF015 was some 40 km northwest of the city at the time.

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Air tankers attacked the fire throughout the day in an attempt to reduce its intensity and slow its growth toward Yellowknife.

“The City of Yellowknife is not currently at threat due to this wildfire,” NWT Fire stated.

By 9:30pm, the wildfire agency said there had been significant fire growth on Friday causing heavy smoke in Yellowknife, but restated that the city was not threatened.

“While the fire grew significantly today, the City of Yellowknife is not currently at threat – we reiterate this as rumours continue. While the smoke columns are highly visible, they are not as close as they look,” the agency wrote in a late update.

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Yellowknife’s air quality shot back down into the gutter as the west wind pushed smoke back across the city – lending a sense of unease that had some residents pawing anxiously for their emergency kit.

Here’s all the confirmed information we have about conditions as of 9:30pm on Friday.

This is the most recent map (as of 5pm Friday) showing fire burn areas and hot-spots around Yellowknife.

What are the city and NWT Fire saying?

NWT Fire restated several times on Friday evening that Yellowknife is not thought to be at risk.

Mike Westwick, a wildfire information officer, acknowledged in an interview with the CBC’s Northbeat TV news program that the smoke would be making people anxious, but said crews had been working hard on the fire’s eastern flank. Westwick said the fire was not expected to reach Boundary Creek overnight, and the evacuation order for the area had been precautionary in nature.

A City of Yellowknife spokesperson told us the city is doing some planning with the GNWT about “any potential wildfire risks,” such as planning where fire breaks and sprinklers could go, but the city stressed it did not believe residents are in immediate danger.

“Despite the increasing levels of smoke in the city, the City of Yellowknife is not currently at threat from Behchokǫ̀/Yellowknife Fire (ZF015). We are working closely with ECC to monitor the situation now and over the weekend and prepare plans to mitigate any potential future risk to Yellowknife,” a spokesperson wrote.

“The city will keep residents updated via social media and the city’s website as the situation develops and information becomes available.”

The city has asked people to be as cautious as possible to avoid triggering any fires this long weekend, but there has been no formal hint of any evacuation notice, alert or order for Yellowknife from any level of government, so far.

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Wait, what’s the difference between those things?

Evacuation notice is basically a heightened state of readiness. If you get an evacuation notice, an evacuation may not be imminent but it’s a possible outcome. Make sure you have an emergency kit ready (we made a guide for that!) and have a basic idea of what your plan would be if an evacuation actually happened. To be frank, why bother waiting for the evacuation notice – you might as well do all that now.

Evacuation alert is the amber flashing light that says: an evacuation could well take place. Be ready to leave at short notice. Boundary Creek was placed on evacuation alert on Thursday evening, and that’s about 35 km west of Yellowknife.

Evacuation order is the real thing and if you get one of those, follow the instructions. You’ll almost certainly get a phone alert and even if you don’t, it’ll be everywhere online, including on this website.

Is there a plan, then?

There is a plan. Here is our article setting out the plan Yellowknife has, and here’s our discussion with the mayor about the general principles that Yellowknife follows when it comes to evacuations.

However, trying to describe the exact plan to you will fail because much of the plan is, in short (and we’re paraphrasing here): “We’ll tell you when you need to know.”

This has attracted some criticism.

The city, though, says there are so many variables that producing a document setting out a precise plan for every eventuality would be impossible.

In general, the city has in the past said it prefers the idea of sheltering in place to attempting an en-masse evacuation of 20,000 people. The fact that the present wildfire is coming from the general direction of the highway south may also be a factor in favour of moving residents around the city to safe locations, which has been the preferred approach when officials discussed this in the past.

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However, the city’s most recent messaging is also clear that an evacuation is one possible outcome in certain scenarios and could come to pass.

If that were to happen, you should expect a huge amount of messaging coming from the city – online, on air, on your phone and probably even door-to-door if need be – telling you what to do.

What’s the forecast?

At the moment, the forecast suggests the wind will change direction by late Saturday to begin pushing the fire back west, and fairly light east-to-west winds will remain for several days after that. Such forecasts are, of course, subject to change.

There’s also the potential for some lightning in the overnight Friday-to-Saturday forecast, and possibly a small amount of rain, each of which are also factors in a complex picture.

NWT Fire said Saturday is likely to be another tough day but conditions may improve after that.

“Tentatively, we are looking towards more favourable forecasts beginning Sunday – with winds shifting to east-southeasterly – which would push the fire back on itself, limit growth, and give an opportunity to get good work done,” the agency wrote.

Is the highway open? I’m, uh, ‘evacuating’ for the long weekend

At the time of writing, Highway 3 is fully open. Check the highway conditions map to be sure.

And in all seriousness, if you had plans to head off-grid for the holiday weekend, take some form of communications device so that you can either check in for updates or be told by friends and family if the situation in the city changes. You never know.

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