Heeding warnings that the flames could move closer to the city by the weekend, long lines of cars have been driving south along the only main highway out of Yellowknife. People who cannot leave by car, are immunocompromised or have conditions that put them at higher risk were asked to register for evacuation flights that began Thursday.
Officials said weather delayed Thursday’s schedule and that evacuation flights reached capacity, resulting in some residents who had been lining up for hours being turned away and asked to return on Friday morning.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said about 1,500 people were airlifted out of Yellowknife on Thursday, and that officials estimated a total of 5,000 were looking for flights out.
“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 government of the Northwest Territories said.
“Many individuals with mobility issues and who are immunocompromised or have a condition that puts them at higher risk of severe outcomes due to smoke were moved up in line, and we would like to thank everyone for their cooperation in making this happen,” the statement said.
The government added that it was safe for residents who are able to evacuate by road and that “flights should be used as a last resort” for those who do not have the option. It said 21 flights with nearly 2,000 seats available were scheduled for Friday, and additional flights could be organized for Saturday depending on turnaround and need.
Air travel was organized for at-risk residents including chemotherapy patients, seniors and people with disabilities, as well as inmates and corrections officers from the territorial jail, according to CBC. It said hospital patients would be airlifted Friday out of Yellowknife — which sits about 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle and 600 miles north of Edmonton.
Fire information officer Mike Westwick said in an update Thursday evening that firefighters had “managed to not have the highway be impacted as folks make their way to safety from our capital city.”
He said evacuations in the Northwest Territories were “yet another example of the kind of severe fire season that we’re facing this year and the extraordinary human toll it’s taking.”
More than 1,000 active fires were raging across Canada on Thursday, as a combination of record-challenging heat, climate change, and long-term drought has exacerbated the wildfire season. This year’s fires have burned twice as much land in the country as any previous season — an area equivalent to Alabama.
In the British Columbia province, the city of Kelowna declared a state of emergency on Thursday and the West Kelowna Fire Chief said nearly 2,500 people have been told to evacuate, with thousands more asked to remain on alert.
Ian Livingston contributed to this report