As crews work to subdue a blaze near the territorial capital of Yellowknife, some who have stayed behind are doing what they can to help those fighting the fires.
“We’re a community grocery store, we’ll try to stay open as long as possible,” Justin Nelson, general manager of the Yellowknife Co-op, told CTVNews.ca Sunday by phone.
Deemed an essential service, the Co-op has stayed open with reduced hours to help feed essential workers and provide some semblance of normalcy in this “chaotic time,” Nelson said.
‘IT’S KIND OF WEIRD AND EERIE’
Most of Yellowknife, a city of about 22,000 people, has evacuated due to the threat of nearby fires, including one about 15 kilometres northwest of the city limits that remains out of control.
Officials say more than 19,000 people have left the city to date, with residents mostly heading to accommodations and evacuation centres in Alberta and Manitoba.
An estimated 2,600 people are still in the capital, including 1,600 who are considered non-essential workers.
The mayor of Yellowknife, Rebecca Alty, has encouraged those still in the city to leave, in part so first responders can “focus on the threat at hand and not trying to get people out of the way of the danger.”
Nelson has worked at the local Co-op for 20 years, which is as long as he’s lived in Yellowknife, moving between nearly every department to eventually becoming general manager, a position he has held for about eight years. He described the past few work days as being out of the ordinary.
“It’s odd, right,” Nelson said.
“There’s no traffic on the road, there’s nobody around when you go home, so it’s kind of weird and eerie. But the people that are here, there’s still a lot of Yellowknifers here. And, of course, essential workers that have flown up from all over Canada.”
A CITY ACCUSTOMED TO WILDFIRES
As a remote city in Northern Canada, residents are accustomed to wildfires.
The smoke this wildfire season has been particularly bad though, Nelson said, reminding him of the summer of 2014 when fires burned nearly 34,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in the territory, an area slightly larger than Vancouver Island.
Even then, he said, the fires have always been distant. But this summer they’re proving to be “a little too close for comfort.”
An air quality statement remained in effect for the Yellowknife region on Sunday because of the smoke, while the air quality health index fluctuated from “low risk” overnight to “very high risk” heading into Sunday morning. By early afternoon, the index fell again to “low risk.”
‘WE’RE ALL TRYING TO LOOK OUT FOR ONE ANOTHER’
The Yellowknife Co-op, which includes a gas bar and grocery store, typically has 160 people on staff. The store’s pharmacy is closed for the time being, but Nelson said another one in town is open.
As it stands, Nelson said there is a skeleton crew of eight people who are helping to run the store, including his wife, who isn’t an employee, and other volunteers.
“Yellowknife is a pretty close-knit community and we’re all trying to look out for one another,” he said. “People are coming, pitching in, helping out with us.”
With hundreds of people leaving by plane, many others also left by vehicle — using the only major roadway in or out of the city — leading to long lineups at gas stations as people waited to fuel up.
That proved to be a “real nail-biter at times” for the Co-op, Nelson said, with lines out to the road and fuel supplies reaching “emergency” levels.
Luckily, he said the company that hauls fuel for them was able to bring in three tankers’ worth.
“We’re doing a lot of things that we don’t typically do in a day, so we’re really hoping that this is over soon and we can welcome back everybody to Yellowknife,” Nelson said.
Thousands of Yellowknife residents joined road convoys and stood with packed bags in snaking lines at the airport to flee a looming wildfire approaching the capital of the Northwest Territories. Baby supplies are seen ready for pickup as volunteers prepare for Yellowknife evacuees fleeing a wildfire threatening the territorial capital, in Valleyview, Alta., Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET’: EVACUATION ORDERS COULD LAST FEW MORE WEEKS
The Northwest Territories government has pointed to slightly cooler weather than forecast, a bit of rain and successful firefighting efforts for helping to prevent the fire near Yellowknife — currently about 1,700 square kilometres in size — from moving closer to the city.
Officials now say that it is “highly unlikely” the fire will reach the outskirts of Yellowknife by the end of the weekend.
“Our fire crews have been working very hard — the city, private industry — working on firebreaks and that, so it’s been a very collaborative approach,” Shane Thompson, minister of municipal and community affairs for the Northwest Territories, told CTV News Channel on Sunday.
“The military has been very helpful as well, so I would say we’re making some progress, but again, we’re not out of the woods yet.”
In an update Sunday evening, a spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) said another company of Army soldiers was deployed to Hay River, N.W.T., for firefighting support, specifically to build firebreaks around the community, as well as Yellowknife. Two divisions from Quebec have also been on the ground providing firefighting support.
There are now about 400 military members in the Northwest Territories, an increase from the more than 200 who had been sent in to assist as of Saturday.
Personnel from the Royal Canadian Air Force are also available for potential evacuations, while about another 100 members from Joint Task Force North, which is responsible for leading the CAF’s continental operations in the North, are in Yellowknife supporting the deployed soldiers.
The military, as of Saturday, had transported approximately 260 people out of the Northwest Territories, including 100 from Fort Smith and Hay River who were brought to Fort McMurray, Alta., and about another 160 people who were taken to Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
Warmer weather in the 20s and westerly winds are expected Sunday and could lead to “significant drying,” the latest wildfire update from the territory said.
There is also a chance of thunderstorms, which could bring about one or two millimetres of rain and potentially new fires due to lightning.
Thompson said he is asking for patience from the residents of Yellowknife, as well as other communities with evacuation orders in place such as Hay River, Fort Smith and Enterprise, with the latter seeing many homes and vehicles destroyed already.
“We still need to be prepared to (wait) a little bit longer, I would say at least two weeks, maybe three, depending on the situation,” Thompson said.
‘SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PLACE’: RESIDENTS WORRIED ABOUT CITY TURNING TO RUINS
Nelson said the Co-op has reached out to the staff who have left to find out where they are, how long they’ll be there and to reassure them that nothing will happen to their pay. A Facebook page also has been set up for the workers.
“There’s stress here in town, but these people had to leave everything behind and get out of town right away and now they’re in different locations across Canada,” Nelson said.
“Some flew, some drove, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going on and when am I going to get back and what am I going to get back to.”
While Sunday started out quite beautiful in Yellowknife, Nelson said, “In the back of my mind, it’s kind of the eye of the storm right now.”
“Yellowknife is such a beautiful place,” he added, “and all the trees around Yellowknife, it makes Yellowknife special. And just to think that we could lose all that is going to be devastating for everybody that lives there.”