Thousands of Yellowknife residents joined road convoys and stood with packed bags in long, snaking lines at the airport Thursday to flee a looming wildfire approaching the capital of the Northwest Territories.
The 20,000 residents of the city and two nearby First Nations have been ordered to be out by noon Friday while crews battle some of the more than 200 blazes that have forced thousands more to retreat to evacuation centres throughout Alberta as far south as Calgary.
N.W.T. officials say the evacuation has so far been safe.
Premier Caroline Cochrane asked residents leaving by road to obey all warning signs, emergency management officials, traffic control devices and posted speed limits.
“We’re all in this together, but individually we choose how to react,” Cochrane wrote in an online post.
“We’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories. The country is watching, and our neighbours are keeping us in their thoughts and prayers.”
The evacuation order issued late Wednesday applies to Yellowknife as well as the nearby communities of Ndilo and Dettah.
Some other communities from Yellowknife south to the Alberta boundary ordered residents out earlier this week, including the hamlet of Enterprise, which is reported to have been decimated.
N.W.T. fire information officer Mike Westwick said convoys were being organized by government emergency workers amid concerns strong north winds could push flames toward Highway 3, the main highway needed for the evacuation.
Linda Croft, general manager of the Big River Service Station in Fort Providence, the main gas station on the highway south of Yellowknife, said the lineup of vehicles was overwhelming.
“This is phenomenal — the amount of traffic,” Croft said. “It’s lined up way around the corner. You can’t see the end of it.”
People fuelling up were anxious, she said, but also trying to stay optimistic.
Fort Providence, about 300 km southwest of the capital, was not in the path of any fires. Croft said locals were doing what they could to make sure evacuees had access to food, water and other amenities.
As Croft spoke, the station’s last coffee filter was about to be used, and staff were trying to find more. While caffeine may be on short supply, she added, the station would have fuel.
Canadian Forces personnel have already been busy this week helping firefighters and flying out evacuees on Hercules aircraft.
Evacuees travelling by air to Alberta were being directed to Calgary and officials were trying to reserve seats for those such as the immunocompromised.
Calgary officials said reception centres have been set up there to accommodate at least 5,000 people. Other centres were operating in Fox Creek, Valleyview and Grande Prairie in the north, along with St. Albert, Leduc and Red Deer in the central region.
In British Columbia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, vacationing in Tofino, was expected to convene an urgent meeting with ministers and senior officials later Thursday.
Trudeau updated his itinerary to include an urgent meeting of the incident response group, a cabinet committee that typically consists of senior ministers and top officials.
The N.W.T. said 236 blazes were currently burning, including fires threatening Yellowknife and the town of Hay River. The blazes have burned an area about four times the size of Prince Edward Island, but no deaths have been reported.
In Yellowknife, officials have begun to lock things down. The territorial government postponed its legislature sitting set for Aug. 21. The city also said transit, trucked water and sewer services, and residential garbage collection have been suspended.