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Fire ZF011 is seen in late July. Gord Gin/Yellow Dog Lodge
Fire ZF011 is seen in late July. Gord Gin/Yellow Dog Lodge

‘Extremely challenging’ winds pick up around Yellowknife, Fort Smith

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Fire crews expected “extremely challenging” days ahead as the wind picked up around Yellowknife and Fort Smith on Sunday.

Fort Smith came under an evacuation order on Saturday in anticipation of the wind, which was expected to drive Fire 7 across new stretches of highway nearer to the town in the days ahead.

By noon on Sunday, NWT Fire said Fire 7 had yet to move significantly and it was “hard to predict what will happen” in the days ahead.

“Crews do not expect it to reach Fort Smith today. The evacuation order remains in place as the highways may be impacted, cutting off routes out of the area,” the territory’s wildfire agency stated.

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Winds gusting up to 60 km/h are anticipated.

North of Yellowknife, cabin owners on some lakes along the Ingraham Trail were placed on evacuation alert and told they should leave by Monday morning, again because the wind promises to be so strong.

At cabins along Prosperous Lake, Prelude Lake and River Lake, residents working to protect their properties cheered as helicopters with buckets passed above.

More: Check our NWT fire map
More: Check our air quality map

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Wind allows wildfires to move extremely quickly in the right conditions, making fire behaviour less predictable and often creating circumstances too unsafe for firefighters to remain on the ground.

West of Fort Smith, crews spent Saturday strengthening a series of containment lines – fire breaks like dozer lines – designed to protect the town if and when the wind pushes the fire to the east.

North of Yellowknife, air tankers and helicopters completed drops on Saturday focused on the southeast corner of fire ZF011 – the hottest point – to limit growth to the south and prepare for Monday, when the wind is expected to be at its strongest.

“A couple of extremely challenging days ahead,” NWT Fire stated on Saturday night, referring to fires around Yellowknife. “Extremely high westerly to southwesterly winds [on Sunday] – 35-40 km/h, gusting up to 60 – will put pressure on our lines and cause extreme fire behaviour and likely significant fire growth.”

Dettah will host a community meeting about fire response at 3pm on Sunday, focused on fire ZF085, burning around 30 km southeast of the community.

In Fort Smith, residents were told to leave the town by the end of Saturday if possible, with no guarantee that the highway to safety could be held open through Sunday and beyond.

As of 10am on Sunday, Highway 5 remained open according to the NWT government, but Parks Canada’s fire crews warned anyone left to be ready for “extended delays or closures.”

Some people have stayed in Fort Smith to maintain essential services and protect the community. Preparations are being made for those people to shelter in place at the town’s rec centre should the fire reach Fort Smith in the days ahead.

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“If you have not evacuated the area of Fort Smith yet, please do so now,” the town’s protective services team stated on Sunday morning.

Many Fort Smith residents have headed to Hay River, where an evacuation centre is open. Smith’s Landing First Nation told members to head for High Level.

“It’s been a long day, with a lot of fear and emotion,” the First Nation stated late on Saturday, thanking residents for their “patience, understanding, and support throughout this time.”