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‘Trees were like ashes’: Evacuees recount fleeing NWT wildfires, seek refuge in Alberta

Yellowknife residents have been told to prepare to leave by Friday at noon

Wildfires menacing the capital of the Northwest Territories crept closer Wednesday while evacuees continued to arrive in Alberta, recounting stories of roads on fire and homes melted to their metal frames.

The N.W.T. government, in its latest fire update, said a blaze had advanced slightly overnight and was within 16 kilometres of Yellowknife, home to 20,000 people.

Yellowknife residents have been told to prepare to leave by Friday at noon. Across the city, residents continued to deal with heavy smoke and falling ash while crews tried to contain the blaze from entering the community.

“A network of fuel breaks, sprinklers and other protective measures are being put in place by the city of Yellowknife and our team,” stated the N.W.T. government in a fire update posted online Wednesday.

The city was organizing shelters in another part of the community for evacuees from the west end.

N.W.T. fire information officer Mike Westwick said the fire could reach the outskirts of Yellowknife by the weekend if it doesn’t rain.

ALSO READ: Yellowknife hands off wildfire emergency measures responsibilities to GNWT

“There is rain in the forecast, but we’ve learned this summer that there are no guarantees on things like that.”

He said the fire could also reach Highway 3 — the main ground transportation artery for Yellowknife — by Thursday. An evacuation order has been expanded to residents who live along that route, he said.

The N.W.T. is grappling with more than 200 wildfires that have already burned an area four times the size of Prince Edward Island.

Westwick said eight communities have evacuated, representing 15 per cent — or nearly 6,800 people — of the territory’s population.

“The human toll of this wildfire season can’t be overestimated,” he said.

The territorial government declared a state of emergency late Tuesday, allowing it to access resources to combat what it’s calling an unprecedented wildfire season.

The evacuation orders include Fort Smith, Enterprise, Jean Marie River and Hay River. Many displaced by the fires were relocating to temporary shelters in Alberta.

Many highways have been closed and the territory has had what officials called the largest airlift in its history. Canadian Forces personnel are helping firefighters and have flown evacuees out on Hercules aircraft.

In St. Albert, Alta., on Edmonton’s outskirts, Tanisha Edison arrived at a fire evacuation centre after a 19-hour drive from her home in Hay River.

Edison, who is days away from giving birth, said the trek took her through the hamlet of Enterprise, home to about 100 people.

“The town was gone pretty much,” Edison said. “No buildings left. It was just metal frames melting.

“You couldn’t even read the signs because … when the fire blew through there, they were all melted.

“Trees were like ashes. Everything was like ashes and on fire.”

About 80 per cent of Enterprise, including homes and businesses, was destroyed but everyone made it out alive, said Blair Porter, the community’s senior administrative officer.

“Just a couple days ago, it was a thriving community … now it’s all gone. It’s pretty devastating.”

Evacuee Yvette Bruneau of Hay River said she was dodging flames on the road and driving blind through the smoke trying to get to safety.

“We couldn’t see the road, zero visibility,” Bruneau said.

“The only way I knew I was on the road (is) my car would start tilting (into the ditch).”

She said when she later got out of the car, it had been torched on one side.

“I phoned my son and I said, ‘Well, if I don’t make it out, I love you.’ He said, ‘Mom, I love you, too.’”

She then told him: “Do not come after me. You will not make it.”

There have been no reports of injuries or fatalities due to the wildfires.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane spoke Wednesday, agreeing to remain in close contact as the wildfire situation develops.

“The prime minister reaffirmed the Government of Canada’s commitment to provide ongoing assistance to the territory and affected communities,” a readout from Trudeau’s office said.

In Yellowknife, RCMP told staff in an email Tuesday that non-essential employees and members’ families should consider evacuating.

Spokesman Cpl. Matt Halstead said Wednesday that the email was a precautionary measure.

“The reality for myself and the other members here is that if an evacuation order is given, we don’t get to go home and attend to our families,” Halstead said in an email.

“Our focus will be on the people in the city and supporting the tasks related to the evacuation. Allowing us to square away our families now, whether that’s having them leave or hunker down, will keep us from worrying as our duties continue.”

RCMP have also said that they were dealing with fires from within the city. Officers had made arrests and were looking for suspects in two separate arsons on Tuesday night.

One fire was spotted at Fred Henne Territorial Park, near the airport, and was quickly extinguished by an area resident. Four girls are also accused of trying to light a fire in a green space in an east-end neighbourhood. Police seized aerosol cans and lighters.

“It is completely beyond understanding that in the face of everything going on in the territory and the threat approaching our city, that people would actively attempt to start fires and endanger our community members,” Halstead said in a news release.

Jamin Mike and Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press