Thousands scramble to evacuate capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as more than 200 ‘unprecedented’ wildfires blanket region

By Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

CNN  —  Thousands of residents are rushing to evacuate the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as more than 200 fires burn across the region, leaving many to face dangerous road conditions or stand in line for hours for desperately-needed emergency flights.

The capital city of Yellowknife – home to about 20,000 – and several other Northwest Territories communities have been ordered to evacuate as crews battle 236 active wildfires in the region. Residents in Yellowknife have been urged to evacuate by noon on Friday as a massive fire creeps toward the city and a major highway.

The infernos in the Northwest Territories are among more than 1,000 fires burning across Canada as the country endures its worst fire season on record. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with a group of senior government officials and ministers on Thursday to discuss the ongoing fires and their potential to impact infrastructure, including roadways and telecommunications.

The Canadian Armed Forces are assisting with firefighting and airlifting efforts in the Northwest Territories. The Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed several planes and helicopters to support regional emergency crews.

“We’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories,” Premier Caroline Cochrane said in a statement Wednesday night.

More than 1,000 people were flown out of Yellowknife on emergency flights Thursday, and close to an additional 2,000 seats are available Friday, territory officials said in an online update. Many hoping to fly out Thursday stood for hours in a winding, slow-moving line only to be told they would need to try again on Friday, CNN affiliate CBC reports.

People line up in Yellowknife to register for an evactuation flight on August 17, 2023.

“We understand that this is deeply frustrating for those who have been in line for several hours and who will need to line up again tomorrow,” the territory update said. It added that people who are immunocompromised, have mobility issues or have other high-risk conditions were moved up in the line.

Officials are encouraging people to leave by car, if possible, and carpool to reduce traffic and assist those without vehicles.

“Evacuation flights should be used as a last resort for those who do not have the option to evacuate by road,” territory officials said.

But some driving out of the area have faced thick smoke and roadways flanked with flames. Yellowknife resident Ruoy Pineda told CNN he and his family struggled to navigate through the heavy haze after the evacuation order was announced Wednesday.

“We were not actually fully prepared,” Pineda said. “On the road, we were all scared of what we saw ahead of us, but we keep reminding ourselves it is better to be out than stranded.”

Pineda described the dangerous road conditions as he and others tried to flee the capital.

“On the road you could see the fire and we were struggling because of the smoke,” he said. “The visibility on the road was very bad. We couldn’t even see if someone was ahead of us.”

He and his family were still on the road Thursday morning and were headed to seek shelter in Edmonton, about 900 miles to the south.

“We are very exhausted right now. We’ve barely slept and are very worried about our house in Yellowknife and if we’ll still have home,” Pineda said.

CNN’s Sara Smart, Paula Newton and Caroll Alvarado contributed to this report.

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