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Remaining Yellowknifers urged to get out as sprinklers, fire guards set up

Another 22 evacuation flights are scheduled today, fire is about 15 kilometres from the city
Vehicles line-up for fuel at Fort Providence, N.W.T., on the only road south from Yellowknife, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Officials in the Northwest Territories are forecasting a critical, challenging day in the effort to battle wildfires threatening Yellowknife.

An expansive network of fire guards, sprinklers and water cannons are being set up to protect Yellowknife from a wildfire that is about 15 kilometres away from the capital of the Northwest Territories, where residents have been told to evacuate by noon today.

While there’s a chance of some limited additional showers today, officials say they can’t count on the rain to help tackle the blaze. They say northwest winds today and Saturday combined with minimal rain could mean the fire reaches the city limits by the weekend.

Officials say they are doing “everything possible” to slow the growth of the fire.

Airtankers continued to fly missions overnight to keep open the highway out of Yellowknife, as officials urge residents to leave the city by noon today.

Another 22 evacuation flights are scheduled today as officials try to get thousands of people out of Yellowknife. The flights are expected to have space for about 1,800 people.

Leaders are urging thousands of residents remaining in its capital to leave before a nearby wildfire could cut off access.

The evacuation of Yellowknife was ordered late Wednesday. Convoys of vehicles have steadily been leaving for hotels and evacuation centres in Alberta.

The highway out of the Northwest Territories’ capital city remains open for those evacuating by road. Officials say highway managers are piloting drivers through fire zones to ensure their safety.

On Thursday, in additional to commercial planes, about 1,500 people left on evacuation flights.

Inmates have already been sent to jails in Alberta and Yukon and there will be a full evacuation of the hospital.

Several other communities in the territory, including the town of Hay River, ordered residents out earlier this week.

Shane Thompson, the N.W.T.’s environment and communities minister, told a news conference late Thursday that the fire situation remains critical.

There were 236 fires burning and it was last reported that flames were about 16 kilometres from Yellowknife.

“I urge all residents under evacuation orders to please adhere to them as they are issued,” Thompson said.

“These orders are never issued lightly and always consider our collective health and safety. You could be jeopardizing your safety and that of others.”

Beatrice Bernhardt, 70, arrived with her husband at the Calgary airport Thursday. She said all they could see in Yellowknife over the last three weeks was smoke.

“It’s just a relief to feel safe,” she said. “But it’s also very painful of what you’re leaving behind.”

Alice Liske said she drove out of Yellowknife with her six kids on Tuesday because the air quality was so bad. She was set to reach an aunt’s home in Edmonton on Thursday.

She said the thought of getting so many people out of Yellowknife in only a few days is nerve-racking.

“Not only that, but when we go back what will be there for us?”

A number of federal ministers are set to take questions this morning about the government’s response to wildfires in the Northwest Territories.

The 10 a.m. news conference is set to feature the ministers of emergency preparedness, national defence, citizens’ services and transport, along with the parliamentary secretary for the minister of environment and climate change.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan says the military is aiding the evacuation, logistics and firefighting efforts, alongside support from a number of federal agencies and departments.

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