Updated Aug 17, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Wildfires force evacuation of Canada's Northwest Territories' capital city

People evacuating Yellowknife on a highway on Aug. 17.

People evacuating Yellowknife on a highway on Aug. 17. Photo: Jessica McVicker

Wildfires burning around Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, forced the city's government to order the evacuation of thousands of people on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Why it matters: The blazes around Yellowknife were among more than 1,000 fires burning across Canada on Thursday morning during its worst wildfire season on record.

  • The city, which sits on the northern shore of the Great Slave Lake, has a population of around 20,000, according to the 2021 Canadian Census.
  • However, because it's a major tourist hub, the number of people staying in the city fluctuates throughout the year.

Catch up quick: At least three fires under 10 acres in size were burning around the city, one to the north, another to the south and the last one to the northwest, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

  • The three fires were considered under control on Thursday morning, meaning firefighters hadn't contained them but they were not expanding.
  • The Northwest Territories declared an emergency on Tuesday, while the city declared a local emergency on Tuesday and a partial evacuation order on Wednesday.
  • The government of Yellowknife ordered some residents living in the highest risk areas to evacuate as soon as possible. All residents were told to leave by Friday.
  • On Wednesday, the government was digging firebreaks and putting fire retardant lines around the city and testing sprinkler systems.

Zoom in: The fire to the northwest was burning close to Yellowknife Highway, the main road connecting the city to the larger Canadian highway system.

  • The road was partially closed to passenger traffic heading into the city on Wednesday night, but it remained open for southbound traffic. It saw "a significant amount of traffic congestion, according to the territories' infrastructure department.
  • Canadian journalist Jayme Doll recorded a long line of people waiting to be flown out of Yellowknife on Thursday morning. The city's airport, which is also the main airport in the Northwest Territories, was crowded with fleeing residents, tourists and workers.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the territory's request for federal assistance and ordered the Canadian Armed Forces to respond to Yellowknife and across the region.

Zoom out: South of the Great Slave Lake, between 85 and 90% of the community of Enterprise was destroyed, the mayor told the CBC.

  • The communities of Fort Smith, Hay River, Kakisa and the K'atl'odeeche First Nation reservation were ordered to evacuate earlier this week.
  • Over 30,000 out of the 45,000 people living in the Northwest territories have been forced to evacuate this week.

The big picture: Government officials have recently warned that the unprecedented season could persist into the fall.

  • Over 5,700 fires have burned nearly 34 million acres across Canada this year.
  • They've forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, and at least four firefighters have died while responding to wildfires.

Our Thought Bubble, via Axios' Andrew Freedman: Canada's wildfires have already set all-time records for their carbon dioxide emissions, acres burned and other statistics.

  • Studies show that climate change is leading to more days with extreme wildfire risk, larger fires, and is pushing wildfires further to the north into the Arctic. There, it can help thaw permafrost, releasing more greenhouse gases that further enhance climate change.
  • The wildfires have had a significant influence on the U.S., with periodic intrusions of hazardous smoke polluting the skies from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Go deeper: Hawai'i braces for crushing wildfire death toll with estimated 1,300 missing

Andrew Freedman contributed to this story.

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