About 1,500 people airlifted out of Yellowknife Thursday, more flights Friday

Evacuees without transportation line up to wait for flights out of Yellowknife Thursday.  (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)
Evacuees without transportation line up to wait for flights out of Yellowknife Thursday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)

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The Northwest Territories government says about 1,500 people were airlifted out of Yellowknife to safety on Thursday, and more flights are scheduled for Friday as the city is evacuated because of wildfire.

Bad weather delayed some planned flights on Thursday, and flights weren't able to begin until 11 a.m.

Ten flights carried people fleeing the approaching wildfire out of the capital on Thursday. People also got out on previously scheduled commercial flights and charters.

A senior cabinet communications advisor told CBC News in an email that in addition to those 10 flights, flights were also organized for inmates and corrections officers from the territorial jail.

Flights were also organized for more than 200 residents needing extra health-care and attention, such as chemotherapy patients, people in late-term pregnancies, seniors, people with disabilities and vulnerable residents.

Still, hundreds of others who tried to get on flights Thursday wound up waiting for hours, only to be told they would have to come back Friday.

There are currently 22 evacuation flights with about 1,800 seats available for Friday, August 18, according to the government. There will also be military aircraft available. Depending on need and availability, officials say additional flights may be organized for Saturday, too.

"That will depend on many factors, including weather and crew time and the number of assets we're able to access," said Jennifer Young, emergency management organization information officer. "So with that in mind, we will potentially go into Saturday, but that is not yet confirmed."

Evacuees without transportation line up
Evacuees without transportation line up

The N.W.T. government says about 1,500 people were airlifted out today with another 1,800 expected to be on planes tomorrow. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Officials believe about 5,000 people were looking for flights out of the city. Pressed for what the "contingency plan" would be if weather or other delays happen, Young said "we will be running flights 24/7 until we have the population that is wanting to get out on flights are able to evacuate via those flights."

They also confirmed that all patients currently in hospital in Yellowknife will be on a flight out Friday.

Yellowknifers have been fleeing the capital by land and by air since officials Wednesday ordered all 22,000 residents out of the city and two nearby First Nations by Friday at noon, to allow for a safe and orderly escape before the smoke and flames got too close.

Officials said the advancing fire could reach the outskirts of Yellowknife by the weekend.

Despite the evacuation order, Young said that the government is unable to forcibly remove anyone who decides not to go.

Yellowknife mayor Rebecca Alty urged anyone who hadn't yet left the area to leave now.

"The highway is open but it is subject to change anytime," she said. "We want to ensure everybody's safety and with the fire approaching, it's not only the fire but it's the heavy smoke that will be approaching."

Demand for fuel along the way has been strong, according to Jeffrey Edison, from the Department of Infrastructure. He said while they don't have updated vehicle traffic numbers from Thursday, 1,419 cars travelled southbound yesterday over the Deh Cho bridge.

"We have fuel all along the highway," he said. "We have two fuel tankers for portable fuel between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀. The gas station at Fort Providence is also a big stop. And we have a fuel tanker on-site with additional supply for them."

Edison said another fuel tanker will be also be there Friday, so people shouldn't worry about being able to fill up on the road.

Fire believed to have moved closer to Yellowknife

Several other N.W.T. communities are also under evacuation orders because of nearby wildfires.

More than 200 fires are currently burning across the territory.

The fire threatening Yellowknife was believed to have moved a little closer to the city on Thursday, but assessments of the fire's growth were still underway, said fire information officer Mike Westwick on Thursday evening. He said crews had a good day.

"We've had air tankers, several air tankers on that fire, hitting targets to the east of the fire," he said. "And they've been successful in completing drops and doing their part to limit the spread there."

Evacuee centres open in Alberta

He said the highway from Yellowknife was not affected by the fire on Thursday, allowing it to remain open to evacuees.

There was almost no rainfall, however, and officials still expect the fire will reach the outskirts of Yellowknife over the weekend.

In Calgary, officials said reception centres have been set up to accommodate at least 5,000 people.

The city of Edmonton is opening an evacuation space at the Edmonton Expo Centre Friday for Yellowknife evacuees.

Temporary lodging, food services, clothing, pet daycare and health care will be available.

The city says people can bring their pets, and are being advised to not leave animals in vehicles due to the hot temperature expected.

If there is additional need for space, N.W.T. officials said Manitoba has offered to take up to 3,000 evacuees.

The territorial government has provided the following information for residents: