Around 20,000 individuals have been compelled to evacuate their residences in Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and its neighboring areas due to the uncontrolled Behchoko/Yellowknife wildfire, which is burning less than 10 miles outside the city. A cluster of over 230 active fires is posing threats to various towns and cities in the region.
The order to evacuate was issued by the Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs on Wednesday, compelling residents of Yellowknife and Ingraham Trail to abandon their homes and businesses using both cars and planes. Likewise, residents from the First Nations communities of N’Dilo and Dettah have also received evacuation orders. Officials have conveyed that evacuations must be completed by noon on Friday, and the relentless blaze could potentially reach the area by the weekend if no rain intervenes. An official government update states, “These fires remain out-of-control,” and as of Tuesday, the fires near Yellowknife have been visible from space. The government’s Department of Environment and Climate Change reported that airtankers were engaged in missions throughout Wednesday night to combat the inferno. Firefighting crews have been diligently working to extinguish hotspots, while others are focused on safeguarding cabins and structures along Highway 3, the main route leading west from Yellowknife. Within the city itself, authorities are implementing protective measures such as activating sprinkler systems and creating firebreaks.
Heartrending images of the wildfire’s devastation have surfaced. Photos and videos circulating on social media platforms depict bumper-to-bumper traffic as residents strive to escape the affected area. Some visuals show vehicles navigating through smoke-laden highways, flanked by smoldering trees as they head to safety. Kimberly Benito, an international student from the Philippines attending online classes at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology while residing in Yellowknife, shared her experiences of witnessing her first wildfire in person.
Benito revealed, “For the past week, I would look out the window and see how orange/smoky the skies are and that’s really scary.”
Expressing a mix of hope and caution, Benito posted on her Instagram story while packing her belongings, “Hoping for the best but prepared for the worst.” She embarked on Highway 3, traveling from the city to Behchoko, located approximately 65 miles northwest. The journey encountered intermittent traffic halts due to authorities escorting cars through perilous zones. Before departing, Benito ensured she had an adequate supply of gasoline, filling not only her car’s tank but also two Jerry cans, as reports indicated gas stations along the route were experiencing congestion.
During the traffic disruptions, Benito observed a heartwarming sight: many fellow travelers had brought their pets along. She remarked, “It was heartwarming to see Canadians treat their pets like family.” Benito had her own companion in the car, a dachshund puppy named Bruno.
Driving through the night, Benito progressed towards Edmonton—approximately 900 miles from Yellowknife—by Thursday afternoon, en route to Calgary, situated another 180 miles away. The evacuation directive has provisions for those unable to depart by car; they can register for evacuation flights. This option is also available for individuals who are immunocompromised or have high-risk health conditions. These flights were slated to commence at 1 p.m. that day, and passengers were restricted to a single carry-on item. Authorities have advised against attempting evacuations by boat to nearby islands due to the expected decline in air quality as the fires draw nearer.
In response to the crisis, Municipal Affairs Minister Shane Thompson declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, facilitating the acquisition and deployment of essential resources for firefighting efforts.
“We find ourselves in a crisis situation and our government is using every tool available to assist,” Thompson stated in a press release.
Yellowknife, historically the land of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, was established as a gold mining town in 1934. It was designated the capital of the Northwestern Territories in 1967, now serving as a vital cultural, economic, and governmental hub. Recognized for its Northern Lights spectacle, the city has resumed mining activities following the discovery of diamonds in 1991, with three mines operational within a short flight from the city. In 2016, the De Beers Group inaugurated the world’s largest new diamond mine, Gahcho Kué, about 175 miles northeast of Yellowknife, just below the Arctic Circle.