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‘Ghost town’: thousands continue to flee Yellowknife as wildfires loom

’There is no looting, your homes are safe, you’ve gotta lock up and head out of town’
Evacuees from Yellowknife, territorial capital of the Northwest Territories, are greeted with the Aurora Borealis as they arrive to a free campsite provided by the community in High Level, Alta., Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Braden

Yellowknife faded into a ghost town in the face of looming wildfires Friday as the mayor of the territorial capital urged residents to leave.

“Grocery stores aren’t open. There’s no services here in town. The smoke’s going to get thick, so really encouraging folks (to) head out now,” Rebecca Alty told CBC News Friday morning, urging residents to ignore unfounded rumours of looting.

“RCMP are patrolling the neighbourhoods,” she told the network.

“There is no looting. Your homes are safe. You’ve gotta lock up and head out of town.”

Thousands of residents in the city of 20,000 continued to leave by air or road Friday. The goal is to get everyone out should the fire, about 15 kilometres from the city’s outskirts, advance and cut off access.

Officials said roads would stay open and flights would continue past the noon deadline as long as it is safe.

Once-busy streets were emptied, with stores and businesses closed.

“It’s a ghost town,” said Kieron Testart, who was going door-to-door in the nearby communities of Dettah and NDilo on a cold, smoky and windy morning to check on people.

“This is kind of the D-Day for the fire effort. If it’s going to get bad, it’s going to get bad today.”

In Yellowknife, gas stations — if they had fuel — were still operating as of Friday morning. One grocery store and a pharmacy remained open — as did a bar, where exhausted workers were gathering at the end of long shifts.

“It’s kind of like having a pint at the end of the world,” Testart said.

People are clearing out for the most part, he said, although some First Nations people have chosen to take shelter in cabins or camps out on the land.

“Our members know the land better than anyone else,” Testart said. “We’re confident they’ll be safe out there.”

Fire information officer Mike Westwick said workers continued to battle the flames.

Eleven air tankers were flying, with another plane dropping fire retardant. A 10-kilometre fire line had been dug, backed up by 20 kilometres of hose and a plethora of pumps — “the most extensive heavy water operation we’ve ever seen in the territory,” Westwick said.

However, winds from the north and northwest were predicted for both Friday and Saturday, threatening to wreak havoc.

Hoped-for rain didn’t materialize overnight, with a scant millimetre falling.

“Both of those winds would push the fires in directions we don’t want them to go,” Westwick said.

“We’ve still got some really difficult days ahead. There’s no denying that.”

The evacuation of Yellowknife was ordered late Wednesday, and sprinklers, water cannons and fire guards were set up.

On Thursday, in addition to commercial planes, about 1,500 people left on evacuation flights.

Officials said more flights were scheduled for Friday that could take about 1,800 people out of the city.

Federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez told reporters the government is working with all airlines to add extra flights.

“Air Canada added more flights, WestJet, Canadian North … the Armed Forces. We will make sure we add as many planes as we can working with those airlines,” said Rodriguez.

The federal government is also contracting with private aircraft to supplement the military effort. Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said he can’t say how many people have been safely evacuated, but the process has been going well.

The Canadian Armed Forces said a Hercules transport plane flew 79 people to Edmonton on Thursday and more flights were set for Friday.

In Calgary, officials said they took in more than 1,200 evacuees on 14 evacuee flights from N.W.T. on Thursday.

Another 26 flights were expected Friday carrying about 2,300.

The city said 495 hotel rooms have been provided to evacuees so far.

On the ground, the main highway out of Yellowknife was reported as having steady, orderly convoys of vehicles headed for evacuation centres in various parts of Alberta.

Several other communities in the territory, including the town of Hay River, ordered residents out within the past week.

Hay River resident Etienne Cumlepen and his Rottweiler Axel were staying in Peace River, Alta., about 490 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Cumlepen, who moved from South Africa in the late 1990s, builds winter roads in the N.W.T. for a living to help get supplies to remote communities. He was working in Alberta when the evacuation of his town was ordered on Sunday.

“We’re stuck here and we’re not sure when we’re able to go back, or what we will find when we go back,” he said Friday.

Cumlepen said the disaster highlights the need to take care of the environment.

“Otherwise, it will kick us in the butt in the long run,” he said. “It’s an expense that a lot of people can’t afford.”

There were 236 fires burning in the territory, which was not alone dealing with a fire crisis Friday.

In Kelowna, B.C., a state of emergency was declared as the city’s airport was shut down and thousands more West Kelowna residents were ordered to leave their homes in the face of a fast-burning wildfire roaring through the surrounding hills.

Wildfire smoke from Western Canada and the N.WT. has drifted as far east as Ontario, creating hazardous air quality in the north.

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