The line-up of people waiting for airlift evacuation at Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School around 11am on Thursday, August 17. Photo: Sándor Vörös
The Yellowknife Women’s Society chartered its own aircraft to get people out of harm’s way as evacuation flights out of the city failed to meet demand on Thursday.
Hundreds of people lined up outside Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School for the flights, which are being offered to anyone with no other means of leaving.
An evacuation order issued on Wednesday night instructs all 20,000 residents to leave by noon on Friday.
However, the airlift now looks set to stretch well beyond that as too few planes departed on Thursday to accommodate everyone waiting.
Many people were left standing on the sidewalk for hours as they waited.
“Today’s evacuation flights are nearing capacity and will be filled with the next 200-400 people in line at Sir John Franklin High School,” NWT government spokesperson Amy Kennedy said by email just before 3pm on Thursday.
“This number will vary depending on the addition of two flights later this evening. Staff on site will advise those in line if they should stay or leave.”
Anyone who doesn’t make it onto a plane on Thursday will be sent home and told to try again on Friday, when registration at the school will reopen at 6am.
“An extensive flight schedule for Friday, August 18 and Saturday, August 19 is being developed,” Kennedy wrote.
“The first flight scheduled to depart on Friday is at 8am, with passengers being bussed to the airport at 7am.”
Kennedy added: “We understand that this is deeply frustrating for those who have been in line for several hours and who will need to line up again tomorrow.”
The GNWT says it is trying to prioritize people with mobility issues or who are otherwise medically vulnerable.
Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Kam Lake, stated on Facebook that people with respiratory problems that could be aggravated by the smoke lingering over the city, or those with other serious health issues, were being prioritized and moved to the front of the line. Elders and people with health issues that “could require hospital attention” are second, followed by people living in neighbourhoods the fire could strike first if it advances on the area.
The Yellowknife Women’s Society took matters into its own hands, chartering an aircraft of its own to get people at its Spruce Bough and Women’s Centre facilities, plus the Salvation Army shelter, out of the city.
“We have arranged special transportation and accommodations and extra support for these participants, and they are currently out of Yellowknife and en route,” society chair Katy Pollock told Cabin Radio by email.
“We want to apologize to family members and friends who are wondering and worrying – our staff have been working around the clock to coordinate transportation, care, and support during this hectic time. Deep, heartfelt gratitude to our staff who have gone above and beyond to make this happen with almost no notice. Deep and heartfelt gratitude also to Det’on Cho Logistics, who provided amazing advice and support for us amidst their own extraordinary circumstances.”
The GNWT urged people leaving by road to carpool if that helps get more residents out of the city during the evacuation window.
The territory believes that conditions after Friday could, without significant rain, see wildfires reach the city by the weekend and some areas of the Ingraham Trail, a highway north of Yellowknife by Friday.
Some light rain did fall on Yellowknife on Thursday, but whether that was enough to meaningfully alter the situation was not immediately clear.
The weather did, however, interrupt the airlift.
“Weather delays have complicated today’s flight schedule, and we are working as quickly as possible to schedule passengers on evacuation flights,” the GNWT stated, asking residents to treat the airlift as “a last resort for those who do not have the option to evacuate by road.”