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The town of Enterprise, Northwest Territories is “90% gone”, multiple communities are under evacuation orders, Yellowknife was placed under an evacuation alert Tuesday evening, and the city’s Stanton Territorial Hospital is transferring intensive and extended care patients to the south, as wildfires in the vicinity of Great Slave Lake rage out of control.
“Start calling people and telling them that they either have a home or not. That’s my day today,” Enterprise Mayor Michael St. Amour said Tuesday.
While St. Amour hadn’t yet returned to the community to see the damage first hand, he told CBC North there’s little remaining. “I think there’s seven or eight houses left and three or four businesses,” he said. “Between 85 and 90% of the community is gone.”
Head for the rec centre. Head for the airport. The dire instructions in different parts of the region came as headlights melted and paint peeled on evacuees’ vehicles, while the wildfires—among the more than 230 burning across the territory—defeated best efforts to get them under control.
The massive outbreak is just one part of an overwhelming Canadian wildfire season that produced 290 million tonnes of carbon emissions in the first seven months of the year, more than double the previous annual record, CNBC reported earlier this month, citing Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
In the NWT, locals are using the NWT Wildfires Safety Check Facebook page to mark themselves safe, check on friends and family members, and in at least one case, find emergency lodging. (On Tuesday evening, hotels in High Level, Peace River, and Grande Prairie, Alberta were full, but word on the street was that St. Albert had space.)
“On Sunday, most of the communities in the South Slave region were ordered to evacuate due to multiple wildfires either directly threatening communities or threatening to close highways connecting them to the rest of the territory,” CBC reports. “Enterprise, Hay River, Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Fort Smith, Salt River First Nation, and Jean Marie River are all under evacuation orders. Kakisa remains under an evacuation alert.”
On Sunday evening, phone lines were down in at least 10 communities, while limited service was still available in five more northerly towns. “With an ongoing communications outage in much of the southern NWT, sharing information has been difficult,” CBC says.
On Monday, the Government of the NWT urged anyone remaining in Fort Smith and Hay River to go immediately to their local airports, the second time this summer that Hay River has had to evacuate. “We need to regroup this morning and the number one priority for all responders right now is getting everyone out safe,” said GNWT fire information officer Mike Westwick. “One of the largest airlifts that’s ever occurred in our territory is under way.”
Just two days earlier, people in Fort Smith, on the NWT-Alberta border, had evacuated to Hay River as a fire closed to within five kilometres of their community’s west end and threatened to cut off Highway 5, the only land route in or out of the town.
On Monday, with “extreme” fire behaviour expected over a 48-hour span, firefighters pulled their base of operations out of Fort Smith to somewhere safer. “There have been significant impacts to the area’s power supply, and the ability to continue to treat potable water, maintain communication lines, and healthcare services is no longer sustainable,” fire officials said in a Monday afternoon update. “This makes it very difficult for first responders to do their jobs safely.”
On that same day, the road out of Hay River was “not passable”, town authorities said, and RCMP reported a dozen vehicles “immobilized or destroyed by the fire” between Hay River and Enterprise Monday morning.
“It is critical that evacuees get on the plane as the road exit is not available and uncertain for the foreseeable future,” the Hay River emergency management organization said Monday.
“When people decide to stay and it’s all good intentions, they decide to stay and help others, or they decide to stay to protect their property, they’re actually putting more people at risk,” Premier Caroline Cochrane told CBC. “Not only do our emergency supports have to focus on fighting the fire, we also have to provide supports to make sure that people that aren’t part of the emergency response are safe.”
“We want you to leave for two reasons, the safety of yourself and your family but also the safety of others that are in town protecting the community and firefighters as well,” agreed Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson.
For evacuees running short on fuel, Alberta Transport has set up fuel services in Steen River, about 160 kilometres south of Hay River, and staff are travelling the highway with jerry cans.
Jane Groenewegen had been sheltering with a friend in Enterprise when an RCMP officer knocked on the door Sunday and told them they had to leave immediately. The sky was “thick black smoke and dark like night” all the way to Indian Cabins, Alberta, she said.
“There were vehicles that had melted lens covers on their headlights, tail lights, all the paint on the side of their vehicles was all like crackled up and busted up,” Groenewegen told CBC. “We knew that people had come through some pretty harrowing experiences to get from Hay River.”
Last she heard, her husband and son were still in the town. “I hope they’re OK,” she said. “I’ve had no word from them whatsoever.”
In Jean Marie River, locals pushed through nine-metre-high flames and thick smoke to evacuate to Fort Simpson, after high winds made it hazardous to fly firefighting helicopters. The sound of the fire was “like a jet taking off,” said local resident Jonas Sanguez. “It was totally, totally scary.” On Monday morning, NWT Fire said all the town’s evacuees got out safely.
On Monday, as well, Yellowknife declared a state of emergency and firefighting crews reported “serious challenges”, after a fire breached control lines and strong winds were expected to fan the flames. The Behchokǫ̀/Yellowknife fire was mapped at 136,109 hectares on Sunday, CBC said.
“The situation is serious and we’ve been taking it very seriously,” said Mayor Rebecca Alty. “It’s about mobilizing all resources to reduce the risk of forest fires.”
She urged Yellowknifers to “stay calm, do not panic.”
While the NWT has declined so far to declare a state of emergency, Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan promised federal assistance Saturday. Canadian military personnel were deployed to help fight the fires on Monday.