Evacuees board a Summit Air flight to Calgary on August 18, 2023. Photo: Trung Bui
The NWT government believes more than 19,000 people have successfully fled Yellowknife and the surrounding area as a wildfire draws closer.
In all, the Yellowknife region had a population of 22,243 at the last official estimate.
The NWT’s environment and communities minister, Shane Thompson, said about 1,000 of those remaining are essential staff.
He urged anyone else to leave, adding that more than 5,000 vehicles were believed to have left the city and just under 4,000 people had been taken out by air.
Meanwhile, NWT Fire said the fire west of Yellowknife did not move significantly closer to the city on Friday.
“We got a little bit of help from weather for the first time in a while,” said wildfire agency spokesperson Mike Westwick.
“It was cooler than forecast, with some cloud cover and higher levels of moisture in the air, which put a damper on fire activity for much of the day.
“Initial assessments are these fires haven’t moved too much today.”
Rebecca Alty said Highway 3 remains open and anyone left can still drive out, while plenty of room remains on flights, with no lines and transport to those aircraft available.
“We have heard of people considering leaving by boat. Please do not do this. The smoke is thick and Great Slave Lake is a big and unpredictable lake,” Alty said. “Everyone should leave tonight by the highway or flights.”
Speaking to Yellowknifers who have already left, the mayor cautioned that they should expect a “rollercoaster” as there was no telling how long people might have to be away.
“Unfortunately, the journey isn’t done yet. The fire continues to approach and the uncertainty of when you’ll be able to return will be difficult,” she said.
Thirty-nine remaining patients from Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital were being moved out of the territory by air on Friday evening, officials said, and a plan to get essential workers other than firefighters out of the city was “being finalized,” with flights lined up on Saturday.
Officials said that medical evacuation took longer than initially planned because the health authority had been attempting a phased evacuation until Wednesday evening’s formal order to leave, at which point the authority moved to a mass evacuation, the logistics of which took time to organize.
Don’t be too reassured
Fires outside Hay River and Fort Smith also did not move closer to those communities over the past 24 hours, and Friday evening’s press conference was significantly more positive in tone than those held earlier in the week.
Thompson acknowledged that the assessment felt “a bit better.”
“The work that has been done in the evacuation by this team has been amazing. Are we there yet? No. But we’re still doing a great job,” he said of the Yellowknife exodus.
“It’s good news across the NWT. We’re starting to see some traction, some better results. I’m more optimistic today than I was yesterday.”
Westwick said the change in conditions was key – as were the efforts of fire crews.
“The way the fire was progressing, and what we were looking at in terms of weather, suggested that this fire could be much closer right now if we didn’t have those successful days of suppression and a bit of help from the weather,” he said.
However, he also cautioned against too much optimism that Yellowknife had now avoided the worst.
“The latest forecasts are showing that we’re looking at west winds, hot temperatures, no rain come Sunday, once again. Lower levels of moisture,” he said.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’re dealing with a very big fire. The risk has fallen that [the fire] will reach the city through this weekend, but we’ve got a couple of tough days ahead in terms of winds … I’m not ready to over-reassure on this front.”
Asked how what residents of all evacuated NWT communities should know about how long they might be away, Thompson said: “If it’s not safe, people should not be coming back home.”
As officials outlined the array of factors that decide whether a return is safe, Thompson drew comparisons with Hay River’s week-long evacuation earlier this year, and then with Sambaa K’e, the Dehcho community whose residents were displaced for 30 days.
“With Hay River, Fort Smith, Kakisa, Enterprise, Jean Marie and Yellowknife, it’s going to depend on the fire and safety situation,” he concluded.
Alty said that even though many hundreds of non-essential residents remain, she considered the evacuation to be “a big success.”
“We’ve managed to basically evacuate the whole city by now. The weekend will be challenging but knowing the residents are safe is a huge relief,” she said.