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NWT wildfire evacuees, how are you coping?

Megan Miskiman and a horse. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio
Megan Miskiman and a horse. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio


This article by our reporter Megan Miskiman comes from The Outhouse, Cabin Radio’s newsletter. You can sign up for free to receive regular round-ups of our best reporting, extra reading, and podcasts.

My partner and I left Yellowknife at 12:30am on August 16, around 19 hours before the city-wide evacuation order was given.

We, like many, decided to leave early because of the feeling of an inevitable evacuation. With one highway out of the city, we worried about long wait times and a more panicked departure, knowing both would contribute to the anxiety we already felt.

Though it felt like the right decision, a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness settled in as we made the drive to my parents’ house in Calgary, Alberta. As my partner slept in the passenger seat, I grappled with climate grief and the idea that the crises we see on the news aren’t just on the news any more, but instead on the highway in front of me.



Even before the evacuation, many Yellowknifers felt anxious about the 2023 wildfire season. For much of the summer, Yellowknife was engulfed in clouds of smoke from fires across the territory. At times, it felt hard to remember what the sky looked like or why I chose to live in the North, if the sun was hidden all winter and now summer, too.  

Struggling early on in the season, I began working on an article about the mental health impacts of climate crises and such a devastating fire season.

I spent many days feeling incredibly low energy, indifferent about work – why should I care about my beat as an arts reporter when the world is on fire? – and anxious about the future of the North and our planet.

Psychologists across Canada and the United States are deep in research about climate grief and anxiety. Elissa Epel, a Department of Psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, described the situation as “multi-layered.”



“In worldwide research on the impact of climate disasters on mental health, it is often found that those who are directly exposed to climate disasters – and have their homes impacted, for example – have more severe symptoms of anxiety, PTSD and depression in the subsequent year,” Epel said.

“It is an inherent challenge that we now live with. It is important to acknowledge the reality of the unknown future and allow your body to relax when there’s not imminent threat.”

The highway as vehicles fled Yellowknife. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio
The highway as vehicles fled Yellowknife. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

Hearing her say this, it felt like a piece of my heart gave up.

Epel was right. This isn’t a one-time event, but rather the first of many climate crises I’m likely to witness and experience in my lifetime. Many NWT residents have already faced this truth. Take those from Hay River who are in their second evacuation of the 2023 fire season – after evacuating in 2022 due to floods.

This conversation with Epel ran through my mind the entire drive south. It is an inherent challenge. How many more times will I drive through flames in the middle of the night? How many more times will I have to choose between my most precious belongings and throw random clothing items into my car? How many more times will I have to leave my home not knowing if I will ever see it again?

We drove through this reality in Enterprise, a hamlet where some who left have nothing to return to. For the first time since leaving in the dead of night, I cried while sitting in the parking lot of the Enterprise Community Centre. I didn’t know why I was crying, just that I was heartbroken for my community and my territory.

Megan Miskiman and her partner on the drive south.

I’ve always struggled with sleep during times of stress.

Stress often gives me intense, surreal dreams or nightmares. In the passenger seat of my ash-covered car, I dreamt of a younger me waking up to a fire alarm warning us of a wildfire coming toward our city. I wasn’t able to wake my parents, and had to find ways to transport them from their bed to their vehicle.



I forgot about this dream until I spoke to Hillary Huynh, a born-and-raised Yellowknifer now living in Kelowna, BC. Huynh spent the summer worrying about her grandparents in Yellowknife, who don’t speak English and relied on Huynh for most of their information regarding the fire season and the evacuation.

“The challenge of not being able to physically assist my family during their evacuation from the fires was quite stressful,” Huynh told me.

“My grandparents … relied on me for updated information and government directives, which was already demanding, especially with the complexities of the C-18 Bill,” she said, referring to the federal legislation to which Meta responded by banning news from Facebook and Instagram.

“The uncertainty of when to flee the city, and the search for an evacuation centre that was not full yet, were undoubtedly the most emotionally taxing aspects.”

Huynh was relieved when she got news from her grandparents that they had made it safely to Alberta. Her joy, however, was cut short by an evacuation notice of her own in Kelowna.

I studied in Kelowna before moving to the NWT and, for the first few hours of Yellowknife’s evacuation, I naively considered if I’d be safer back in Kelowna. For a very short second, I even wished I’d never left. It seems not to matter where you live any more, though.

Loss and losing

I woke as we crossed the border into Alberta. I grew up in Calgary and, for the first time since moving away, I was itching to get back to the city. When the town you call home is at risk of going up in flames, suddenly your childhood home doesn’t seem too bad.

Groggy from an hour of sleep, I grabbed my computer and began to work.



I’m learning how journalists cope when facing such dire situations. I put my feelings to the back of my mind and put my all into showing up for the community. I heard many stories, similar to my own, of people driving through the night, past flames and through smoke, to find safety. I saw photos and videos of the experiences of others. I searched high and low for answers to people’s questions.

Megan at her laptop.

I learned about Samantha Marriott when she spoke with my colleague, Simona. Marriott was one of many Yellowknifers who felt left in the dark by the municipal and territorial governments when even the dimmest of lights could have eased anxieties.

“My anxiety is really, really high. I’ve had a couple of pretty low, depressive days. And so on top of that, a lot of people I know – fellow northerners – have gotten a cold or flu,” she said.  

“I’m currently recovering from a pretty nasty flu right now. My chronic pain and illness is significantly flared up. I’m really, really struggling, just day to day.”

Until hearing these words in Simona’s recording, I had been so caught up in how the evacuation was affecting my mental health that I forgot my physical health. I’ve had a nasty cold since day three of the evacuation and, where normally I’d sleep day and night when sick, this time I’m too anxious. My body isn’t getting the rest it probably needs.

In Yellowknife, I’m an active person with a strict routine and I like waking early. In Calgary, my ability to wake before 7am has completely left me and I have little energy for runs or workouts. My physical health has taken a hit from my mental health being so low.

Nonetheless, I was able to find safety at my parents’ house with my partner beside me. I have continued working, meaning I’m continuing to get paid. I’ve heard from many folks who weren’t as lucky.

As a member of Yellowknife’s queer community, one of my first thoughts was for those who aren’t as well accepted by their families. These stories aren’t often told while they’re happening, and I heard from one couple who returned to a family home after leaving Yellowknife, only to learn it still wasn’t a safe space for them.  



They, too, were lucky – they were able to stay with nearby friends where they both feel safer. But how many people are forced to be with parents, spouses, siblings or grandparents they aren’t emotionally, mentally or even physically safe with?

These conversations make me realize my limits as a journalist. I often want to change the world with what I write. I dream of writing the article that stops climate change, puts an end to domestic abuse, or brings equality to minorities. Deep down, I know it isn’t possible. I’ve had to remind myself many times throughout the 2023 fire season that just because I can share these stories, doesn’t mean I have the power to change them.

That feeling translates to other industries. Nicole Armstrong, a healthcare worker in Yellowknife, told me she felt “useless” during the weeks leading up to the evacuation order – unable to tell her clients and their families what to expect and how she could help in the case of an evacuation.

“I’m angry,” Armstrong told me.

“I’m angry at the territory and city for dropping the ball. I’m angry at everyone who thought keeping the public in the dark was better for reducing panic and fear. All it did was worsen what everyone was already thinking and worried about.”

Similar to Armstrong, I’ve been lucky to have a psychologist by my side during this crisis. Having the option to cry, rant and ramble to a professional has helped me through hard moments.

Not everyone has access to that.

“The territory’s mental health resources are awful,” said Armstrong.



“It’s a broken system with long wait times and a revolving door of practitioners … there’s never been continuity of care in the territory, and having to re-tell your story again is exhausting, disheartening and even re-traumatizing, to the point where people just stop trying to access resources.

“I feel like anyone who tries to utilize Alberta mental health resources, then continues that work once we’re allowed to go home, will be at a disadvantage. Yes, on one side they will receive supports for the acute immediate time, but they will have to re-tell and start back at zero with their concerns.

“It feels like a lose-lose, no matter what.”

Breaks and breaking

Work has become harder and harder each day. I struggle to focus on tasks for more than 30 minutes. My emotions change drastically. My anxiety surrounding the climate crisis flits between panic attacks and depressive lows. Where do we go from here?

My conversation with Epel made me feel hopeful about the future at the time, while validating the hopelessness I felt. Returning to that, I realized one thing Epel stressed was the very thing I had done none of.

“You have to take breaks,” she said.

“You have to take a break from coping with it and talking about this. Our bodies can’t withstand the vigilance and the chronic tension that this naturally creates.”

I’ve always used work as a distraction from emotions I don’t want to feel, but this time the feelings need to be felt.



I’ve started taking longer and longer breaks. I take time to ignore my phone, to sit in nature, to be in silence with myself.

But what about when I’m not taking these breaks? Interested in why I struggle to focus, I reached out to Jyoti Mishra, a professor in psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and co-director of the UC Climate Change and Mental Health Initiative.

Mishra told me the mental effects of wildfires are often not observed until six or 12 months afterward. However, she also affirmed that what I’m experiencing is not abnormal.

Mishra was involved in a study of three groups: people directly exposed to the California Camp fire in 2018, a group exposed to those fires within their community but not directly impacted, and a third group, demographically similar but not exposed to the fires.

The point of the study was to find how different groups are affected by climate crises such as wildfires, and what symptoms arise.

“We’ve looked at cognition and brain function. One of the abilities that was strikingly impacted is the ability to resolve distractions and basically interfering stimuli,” Mishra told me.

“When we look at the psychiatric symptoms, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders are three times more prevalent in the directly exposed group relative to controlled, healthy individuals.

“And then anxiety and depression are also highly elevated, up to about two times more in the directly exposed group.”



A file image of a wildfire in California
A file image of a wildfire in California. Hanna Tverdokhlib/Dreamstime

Then Mishra said something that took me back to Epel.

“Climate trauma is not exactly PTSD as was first defined in war veterans, and, yeah, there’s specific kinds of trauma,” she said.

“But then here, the context is that when we think about climate trauma, it’s sort-of reoccurring as well. It’s not a one-time phenomenon. People can experience wildfires almost on an annual season.”

It’s an inherent challenge.

‘Saved’ and safety

The only person who can “save” me is me. I can’t continue this way, nor should I have to. What do I do?

I’ve tried getting back to my normal routine. I wake up in the morning and go for a run, even when it feels impossible. I’ve started taking more breaks.

One of the hardest changes I’ve had to make? Relying on people around me.

I don’t usually ask for help, but asking for help right now is getting me out of some of the most intense lows. It’s easy to feel like I’m the only one struggling, but it isn’t true. We are all struggling, even if we’re doing it differently.



Coming together, talking about the struggle and working as a community to get through has been one of the most healing experiences for me.

We have a long way to go. It is unreasonable to expect that when we return home, our struggles will stay in Alberta behind us. The Yellowknife we knew will not be the Yellowknife we return to. That doesn’t have to be a negative, though.

It’s time that we collectively change. I wish my journalism could change the world, but I can no longer put that pressure on myself. I can’t do it alone, but I know we can do it together.

We’ve done all of this together. We left together, we cried together, we raged together, we laughed at Yellowknife memes together, we missed home together.

And we will return together.