'Most of the people are now gone': Yellowknife nearly emptied as fire fight continues

YELLOWKNIFE — A wildfire that forced the evacuation of most of Yellowknife remained about 15 kilometres from the capital of the Northwest Territories on Saturday after some help from the weather.

Wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said the area received about four millimetres of rain overnight and cooler, damper weather over the past few days allowed crews to get some good fire suppression work done.

But he told a news conference late Saturday that temperatures are expected to climb up into the 20s on Sunday and the winds will pick up, meaning the break will be over.

"This fire's taken a nap. It's going to wake up and we've still got a serious situation to handle here," Westwick said.

An evacuation order was issued Wednesday night for the city of 20,000 people and most residents complied with a departure deadline of noon on Friday.

Territorial officials said Friday night that 19,000 people were out and about 2,600 remained -- 1,000 of them essential workers, including firefighters, emergency teams, utility workers and RCMP officers.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Shane Thompson told the news conference that over the last week, 68 per cent of the territory's population has been evacuated.

The last 39 hospital patients in Yellowknife's hospital were flown out Friday night on a Canadian Forces plane and transported to British Columbia, David Maguire with the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority said in an email.

Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green told the news conference that the hospital's emergency department remains open for firefighters and other essential workers, and she thanked other health-care workers who delayed their own departures in order to stay and help others.

Sadly, she said one patient died during the preparation for transport.

"This was an expected death. However, I want to send my personal condolences to his family as they grieve during this difficult time," Green said, adding that no other information about the person would be provided for confidentiality reasons.

Many evacuees have travelled to different areas of Alberta and up to 3,000 were being flown to Manitoba.

"The first flight with 15 people arrived early this morning," the Manitoba government said in a statement Saturday. "Evacuees are being welcomed at the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, transported to a reception centre and then to their hotel accommodations."

There were 236 fires burning in the territory. In total, there have been 269 this year and they have burned more than 21,000 square kilometres -- roughly four times the size of Prince Edward Island. No deaths have been reported.

Seven other N.W.T. communities were also under evacuation orders, forcing thousands more people out of their homes.

In Yellowknife, gas stations, stores and restaurants were all closed.

“Yellowknife feels like a ghost town at the moment, that’s for sure,” said Vincent Meslage, an essential worker still in the city.

He and a friend spent the better part of Friday driving people to the airport to get on evacuation flights.

“There were some people that were still stressed out, other people remained calm,” he said. “At the end of the day, most of the people are now gone.”

Mayor Rebecca Alty said RCMP have brought in extra officers for patrols to prevent looting, and that they also appreciate reports from homeowners who spot suspicious activity on doorbell cameras.

No date has been set for anyone to return, which officials noted is frustrating and could be prompting some to post misinformation online.

"I want to know when we're going home," Premier Caroline Cochrane told the news conference Saturday.

"We have to make sure it is safe to go home."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2023.

-- By Bill Graveland in Calgary and Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Canadian Press