The line of cars and trucks evacuating the northern city of 20,000 stretched to the horizon on Thursday, loaded with hastily seized belongings and pets of families ordered to flee the natural disaster that has come to symbolize this summer in Canada — wildfire.
With a major, out-of-control fire ravaging a forest about nine miles away from the city — Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories — flames were likely to reach the city limits on the weekend, and the evacuation was expected to continue through Friday.
The ongoing evacuation of the entire city has been a monumental — but orderly — process, with free gasoline, free food and drinks, and escorts to guide motorists through the thick smoke. Yet, to those suddenly forced to pack up and move themselves and what they could, it has been stunning.
Even in a community in a region where wildfires break out each year, the decision to empty out the city was met with disbelief and denial about what could happen.
“It shifted from ‘don’t worry’ to ‘evacuate,’” Lee Selleck, a 68-year-old former journalist, said of the government’s message to residents, adding that he believes the city’s lakeside location and other measures will stop the blaze at its boundaries. “If it doesn’t, it’ll be one hell of a disaster.”
Still, as Shane Thompson, the territory’s environment and climate change minister, ordered residents to get out on Wednesday, he spoke bluntly.
“The fire now represents a real threat to the city,” he said at a news conference that evening.
It’s a warning that has been repeated too often this summer across Canada, where hundreds of wildfires have raged, burning an unprecedented amount of land.
Most of them have not threatened significant population centers except with noxious smoke. But at least 196,000 Canadians are estimated to have been evacuated from their homes this year, according to data from Natural Resources Canada, a federal government department, more than the past six years combined.
On Thursday, territorial fire officials said that the wind direction was slowing the fire’s progress toward Yellowknife but maintained their extreme-fire-risk rating for the city through Saturday.
Yellowknife is not only the government seat of the Northwest Territories, part of a vast swath of northern Canada, it is also the administrative base for the territory’s diamond-mining industry.
Along with Yellowknife, officials ordered the evacuation of several other communities, including one of the Indigenous Dene people, Dettah. The authorities fear that the highway linking those places to Yellowknife — where about 20,000 people live — could be engulfed by a separate fire as soon as Friday.
They also warned residents not to seek refuge on islands in the Great Slave Lake, the shores of which define the city, because the air quality in the region was expected to deteriorate significantly as the fire neared.
After the order to abandon the city, neighbors of one residential crescent quickly deserted it, many of them handing their house keys for safekeeping to a neighbor who is an emergency medical dispatcher, Lauri Leppänen. Mr. Leppänen and Vincent Meslage, another emergency medical dispatcher in Yellowknife, have stayed behind to volunteer as drivers for the community’s evacuees.
The men took many evacuees to a local school, where a line of hundreds of people snaked down the road, all waiting to register for an evacuation flight. Those leaving on planes supplied by commercial airlines and the Royal Canadian Air Force are restricted to a single carry-on bag and were told to pack no more than five days’ worth of clothing and to take food and drinks.
“We’ve been helping people through the phones since Day 1 here, and I think, like they say, we’re the calm boys during the chaos,” Mr. Leppänen said, adding that he felt more at ease after his family had left. Calgary, the largest city in the neighboring province of Alberta, has opened a reception center, and emergency preparedness officials said during a news conference that the city was ready to accommodate 5,000 evacuees at hotels.
For Albertans, their arrival is a reminder of a similar exodus of about 90,000 people from Fort McMurray, a city that was partly destroyed by wildfire in 2016, in what became the country’s most costly insurance disaster at about four billion Canadian dollars.
The remarkable decision to abandon another city was yet another reminder of the disruption wrought by Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. About 1,000 fires are active in the country. So far this year, the fires have burned an area nine times as large as that scorched in last year’s entire fire season. At times, smoke has traveled as far south as the U.S. state of Georgia and as far east as Europe.
Evacuating Yellowknife will dislodge about half of the entire population of the Northwest Territories.
Sparsely populated but covering an enormous landmass, the Northwest Territories is one of the three Canadian territories that lack the powers given to provinces by the country’s Constitution and rely on the federal government for a significant portion of their funding.
“I’m debating about what to bring with me in terms of things like documents and keepsakes,” said Philip Boulton, an information technology analyst, as he was preparing to evacuate to northern Alberta on Thursday morning.
He said improved fire breaks around the town, including widened sand pits and water sprinkler, gave him reassurance that he won’t be returning to a scene of destruction. But he acknowledged that there were no guarantees.
“I really don’t think that the town is going to burn down, but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part,” Mr. Boulton said. “I didn’t think I’d be evacuated, either.”