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Out-of-control wildfires in Canada force all 20,000 residents of Yellowknife to flee

Residentss flee Yellowknife on Highway 3 after being ordered to evacuate on Wednesday due to a wildfire heading closer to the city.
Pat Kane/Reuters
Residentss flee Yellowknife on Highway 3 after being ordered to evacuate on Wednesday due to a wildfire heading closer to the city.

Updated August 17, 2023 at 3:52 PM ET

Some 20,000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes in Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, and the surrounding areas as the Behchoko/Yellowknife wildfire burns out of control less than 10 miles outside the city. More than 230 active fires are threatening other cities and towns in the region.

The order to evacuate was issued by the minister of municipal and community affairs on Wednesday, forcing Yellowknife and Ingraham Trail residents to flee their homes and businesses by car and plane. Residents of the First Nations communities of N'Dilo and Dettah were also ordered to evacuate. Authorities told residents they have until noon on Friday to evacuate, and that without rain, the inferno could reach the area by the weekend.

The government's status update reads, "These fires remain out-of-control," and as of Tuesday, the fires around Yellowknife could be seen from space.

Airtankers flew missions throughout Wednesday night to combat the blaze, according to the government's department of environment and climate change. Firefighting crews have been doing their best to put out hot spots, while others tried to protect cabins and other structures around Highway 3, the main road west out of Yellowknife. In the city itself, officials are taking protective measures including turning on sprinklers and creating fuel breaks.

Images of the blaze are heartbreaking. Photos and videos appearing across social media platforms show bumper-to-bumper traffic as residents try to flee the area. Others show vehicles traveling along the highway engulfed in smoke, with smoldering trees lining the roads as they drive toward safety.

A screenshot of the fires from Instagram user Kimberly Benito shows evacuees traveling by car through highways engulfed in smoke.
@kimmbenito / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR
A screenshot of the fires from Instagram user Kimberly Benito shows evacuees traveling by car through highways engulfed in smoke.

'Hoping for the best but prepared for the worst'

Kimberly Benito is an international student from the Philippines studying online at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology while living in Yellowknife for a year. She said it was her first time seeing a wildfire in person.

"For the past week, I would look out the window and see how orange/smoky the skies are and that's really scary," Benito told NPR.

"Hoping for the best but prepared for the worst," Benito posted to her Instagram story Wednesday while packing a box of her belongings.

She took Highway 3 out of the city to Behchoko, approximately 65 miles northwest. The traffic was stop-and-go for about an hour and a half because authorities had to escort cars through hazardous areas, she said. Before leaving town she stocked up on gas, filling up her tank as well as two Jerry cans, because she had heard that gas stations along the way were backed up.

"What kept us entertained during the traffic/stops was to see that most of the cars with us had their pets with them," Benito said. "It was heartwarming to see Canadians treat their pets like family."

She too had a furry friend in the car, her dachshund puppy named Bruno.

Benito drove overnight and had almost reached Edmonton — 900 miles from Yellowknife — by Thursday afternoon on her way to Calgary, which is another 180 miles away.

Evacuation flights available

The evacuation order says those who cannot leave by car can register for evacuation flights, as well as those who are immunocompromised or have high-risk health conditions. Those flights were to start taking off at 1 p.m. today, the order reads, and passengers can only take one carry-on item.

Officials are discouraging evacuation attempts by boat to nearby islands, saying the air quality will decline as the fires grow closer.

Municipal Affairs Minister Shane Thompson declared a state of emergency Tuesday to allow the territory to acquire and deploy desperately needed resources to fight the fires.

"We find ourselves in a crisis situation and our government is using every tool available to assist," Thompson said in a press release Tuesday.

Yellowknife is the traditional land of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, but was founded as a gold mining town in 1934, according to the city website. It became the capital of the Northwestern Territories in 1967, and now is known as a cultural, economic and government services hub for the Northwestern Territories. It's also a great place to see the Northern Lights.

The city got back into mining after diamonds were discovered in the area in 1991, and has since opened three mines within a short flight of the city. In 2016, the world's largest new diamond mine, Gahcho Kuéopene, opened up approximately 175 miles northeast from Yellowknife, just south of the Arctic Circle, according to the mine's majority owner, the De Beers Group.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.