Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty says remaining non-essential residents should leave by Friday night amid ongoing wildfires in the Northwest Territories.
In an update Friday night, N.W.T. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Shane Thompson said over 19,000 people have left Yellowknife so far.
He said as of Friday evening 5,000 vehicles left the city, 3,800 people were airlifted out and 15,000 others travelled by road to safety.
Emergency Management Organization information officer Jennifer Young confirmed out of the 2,600 people left in the territorial capital,1,600 are non-essential workers.
“Everyone should leave tonight by the highway or flights,” said Alty.
Crews are urging remaining residents to drive out or shelter at Sir John Franklin High School, the nearest available evacuation shelter in the city. Crews say evacuation flights to Manitoba are available throughout Friday night.
“It is a real possibility that highways and the airport could be compromised by this wildfire. So please get out now,” said Thompson.
Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority CEO Kimberly Riles said 39 patients are currently being moved from hospitals in N.W.T. to B.C. and less than 300 patients have been moved over the course of the week, Riles said.
The Canadian military said it was working to get the remaining residents out of Yellowknife on Friday as a result of the ongoing wildfires in the Northwest Territories.
In a virtual update Friday afternoon, federal ministers said 79 long-term care residents were airlifted out of the territorial capital on a Hercules aircraft Thursday night and more flights were expected as evacuations continued throughout the day.
The capital city of Yellowknife, which has a population of about 22,000 people and makes up around 40 per cent of the territory’s population, is under an evacuation order, along with several other communities. Residents were urged to leave as winds were expected to shift eastward and direct fires west of the city toward the capital.
Minister of Defence Bill Blair said half of the population of the Northwest Territories has now been displaced.
“Our top priority is to keep people safe and the federal government is here to support you,” he said in reference to both the fires in the Northwest Territories, as well as those affecting Kelowna and West Kelowna, B.C.
“We will do whatever it takes to ensure that you can return to your communities and livelihoods as quickly as possible.”
The territorial government declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and Canadian Armed Forces members are in the Northwest Territories helping with firefighting and evacuation efforts.
There were 236 active fires in the territory as of 9:00 p.m. MDT Friday, with flames about 15 kilometres away from Yellowknife.
Blair said there are about 150 Canadian Armed Forces members, including 120 soldiers and 30 aviators, along with Hercules, Globemaster and Polaris aircraft, currently assisting with firefighting and evacuation efforts.
On Monday, a Royal Canadian Air Force Hercules aircraft flew 25 people from Hay River to Fort McMurry, while a second flew in another 75 people from Fort Smith.
Vehicles line up for fuel at Fort Providence, N.W.T., on the only road south from Yellowknife, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
OFFICIALS SAY NO PRICE GOUGING DURING CRISIS
The Public Health Agency of Canada is sending supplies from Canada’s Emergency Strategic Stockpile and Service Canada has made preparations for an influx of Employment Insurance (EI) claims.
Citizens’ Services Minister Terry Beech said Friday that if evacuees have lost their jobs as a result of the wildfires and need to apply for EI, their applications will be prioritized based on their postal codes. The minister advised impacted Canadians to ensure they have signed up for direct deposit to ensure they’re able to receive the federal benefits they are eligible for in a timely manner.
Fire scars around Yellowknife, Aug. 15, 2023. (European Union, Copernicus Program 2023 / Sentinel-2 imagery processed by SentinelHub)
When asked how the federal government is addressing commercial flight pricing concerns, Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez said he spoke with Air Canada and the airline agreed to open more flights and cap costs, noting it and other airlines acknowledged the federal government will have zero tolerance for price gouging amid the crisis.
However, federal ministers stopped short of committing to reimburse people who have already left on commercial flights, some of which have been reported to cost a few thousand dollars.
Rodriguez said Transport Canada is allowing pilots to extend their flight times and is offering leniency around the ID required to board, as well as allowing passengers fleeing the fires to board planes with their pets.
“The priority for now definitely is people getting people out, by air, by road, and absolutely no one will be left behind,” he added.
BLOCKING OF CANADIAN NEWS ‘TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE’: MINISTER
The inability of some Canadians to access news on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram during the crisis — the result of a decision by their parent company, Meta, in response to the federal government’s Online News Act — is “totally unacceptable,” Rodriguez said.
As the former heritage minister, Rodriguez oversaw the passage of the Online News Act, which would force companies such as Meta and Google to develop agreements to compensate news companies for sharing their content.
“And I warned them during conversations in the past of the risk of blocking news,” Rodriguez said.
“We’ve seen what happened in Australia, I told them this could happen here. They said that it would be different and it’s not different. So I’m asking them to go back on their decision and allow people to have access to news and information in Canada.”
In 2021, Facebook temporarily blocked news on the platform in Australia over opposition to a similar piece of legislation in the country, which resulted in users also losing access to public health and emergency services.
CREWS WORK TO SUPRESS THE FIRES
The government of the Northwest Territories has called the evacuation flights a “last resort” for anyone who is unable to leave by road. The government has prioritized flights for those with mobility issues or health conditions that put them at greater risk of developing complications from the smoke.
“It is safe for residents who have a vehicle and are able to drive to evacuate by road,” the territorial government said in an update Thursday.
“Carpooling is encouraged to reduce traffic and assist those who do not have access to a vehicle.”
Evacuees from Yellowknife, territorial capital of the Northwest Territories, make their way along Highway 3, at the edge of a burned forest, on their way into Alberta Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Braden
Crews are creating firebreaks, essentially clearing strips of land of trees and anything else that could fuel the fires.
Speaking to CTV’s Your Morning on Friday, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said crews have cleared 150 hectares or 1.5 square kilometres so far.
“That’s 150 hectares less of fuel and a really important firebreak,” she said.
Sprinklers, used to help wet the ground and slow the potential spread of the fires, are also shooting 1,000 gallons a minute and will run 24 hours a day, Alty added.
“Although we didn’t get the rain that we wanted yesterday, those sprinklers are soaking the west side of our community, and then the territorial government, of course, is working in the air,” she said.
“Hopefully, they’ll be able to get as many air tankers as possible up today and to get that fire retardant line. So, much work here. Just huge thanks to all the crews who are working hard to keep our community safe.”
GOVERNMENTS WORKING TOGETHER IN WILDFIRE RESPONSE
On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a meeting of the Incident Response Group, a high-level panel of cabinet ministers and senior officials, to discuss the wildfires.
Ministers were briefed on the latest developments, discussed ongoing safety issues and the actions needed to mitigate the impacts of the wildfires.
In a readout following the meeting, Trudeau and ministers stressed the importance of residents following evacuation orders and the advice of first responders on the ground. The prime minister also continued his outreach to local and territorial political leaders.
Craig Yeo, an evacuee from Yellowknife, territorial capital of the Northwest Territories, packs up his tent under a rainbow at a free campsite provided by the community in High Level, Alta., Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Braden
The Government Operations Centre is leading national efforts to co-ordinate federal resources from across departments, including Public Services and Procurement Canada, Indigenous Services Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard.
With files from CTV National News Alberta Bureau Chief Bill Fortier, Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello and The Canadian Press