Nowhere on Earth Is Safe: City of Yellowknife Evacuated

This year’s fire season has been rough on Canada, helping to make the point that with the entire planet warming, we can’t simply move everyone north, and expect the weather to move with us like a neat map of horticultural growth zones. For average temperatures, that’s a fine way to show things, but the reality is that we don’t really get to have average temperatures, or “normal conditions” anymore. With global air and water currents changing, we can see temperatures of over 100F/38C in the Arctic Circle, and that tends to come with fires. This year, for the first time, the entire city of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, has been evacuated. This is the northern-most city in Canada, in a landscape covered with lakes, streams and ponds, but that seems to offer little protection. Fire season has always been a thing in Canada, but never like this. Over 20,000 residents have been given till this weekend to leave the city, ahead of an advancing fire that’s deemed likely to cut off the only road out.

More than 20,000 residents – the entire population – have been given until noon on Friday to leave their homes, as water bombers flew throughout the night and authorities warned that the fire could reach the city by the weekend.

Evacuation flights are also due to begin on Thursday afternoon, and will continue until the entire population has safely left the city, said the Yellowknife mayor, Rebecca Alty. She warned residents to bring water and food with them to the city’s airport as they could face long waits to get on a flight.

The out-of-control wildfire – which was least measured at 163,000 hectares wide (402,000 acres) – is currently 16km from Yellowknife, the capital of the vast and sparsely populated Northwest Territories. The city lies roughly 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Canada is enduring its worst wildfire season, with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country, including 236 in the Northwest Territories.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to convene a meeting of the Incident Response Group, a group of ministers and senior officials and ministers which meets in moments of crisis.

The blaze near Yellowknife has also prompted the evacuation of several other nearby towns, including the Dene First Nation communities of N’dilo and Dettah.

“The reality is we’ve been fighting this fire for over a month. This fire has burned deep, this fire has burned hot, and it has found ways through multiple different sets of established [control] lines,” said the Northwest Territories fire information officer Mike Westwick.

As thick smoke blanketed the city, traffic backed up the main road leading towards the town of Fort Providence, where hundreds of people spent the night sleeping in their cars in the parking lot of a service station.

Linda Croft, the manager of the Big River service station, said that traffic had been heavy since Wednesday morning as people attempted to escape. “It’s lined up right back along the highway, no end in sight,” she said.

More than 2m hectares of the territory have been burned this season, and more than half of its population is now under evacuation order. Roads out of the region also pass through areas with active fires.

On the other side of Great Slave Lake, residents of the village of Hay River were told to leave Sunday.

Garth Carman, who drove out with his 16 cats, described witnessing scenes like “the apocalypse”, with bears and other wild animals burned alive on the roadside.

“A wall of flames just washed over the highway and trees just began exploding in the fire – poof, poof, poof – one after the other, coming towards us. It was hell driving through this,” he told CBC.

About 39km south of Hay River, the town of Enterprise has been 90% destroyed by fire.

Nowhere is safe.

Global warming is not a problem that can simply be avoided by stepping out of its way, because there is no “out of its way” on this planet. It’s a problem that must be directly confronted.

Evacuating people ahead of an advancing fire or storm is a very good thing, but I think it’s obvious that literally dodging disasters isn’t a sustainable response. We have to end fossil fuel use, and because corporate greed has delayed action for so long, we have to undertake that monumental task, while dodging disasters. This is not a good position to be in, regardless of political or economic system, but I think it’s made much, much worse by the fact that we are burdened by a parasitic capitalist class, which values its wealth and power over all life on this planet. I say “parasitic”, but really, they are parasitoids – feeding off all of us until there’s nothing left but withered corpses.

With luck, and the efforts of firefighters, these people will be able to return to smoke-damaged homes by winter. Fire season tapers off as the weather cools, and despite this year looking like yet another “hottest on record”, less sunlight still means the temperature drops, so we’ve got that going for us. The problem is that this doesn’t end until greenhouse gas levels are lower than they were a decade ago, and right now, they’re still climbing fast. We’re running short on time, and thanks to capitalism, we’re also needlessly short on resources to spend on mitigation or adaptation.


  1. jenorafeuer says

    This has been, unsurprisingly, major news up here. I’m sitting in Toronto, just pulled up the CBC News app on my phone, and the entire ‘top story’ block with four different story links is on this. As you said, while Canada has dealt with massive wildfires before (I’m from British Columbia originally, and I’ve watched firefighting planes dip down over lakes in the Kootenay Boundary to scoop up water to carry off to the front lines) there has never been anything this big this far north.

    The big boreal forests have been the source of a lot of global warming worries. Among other things, they connect forests throughout Canada that are otherwise mostly separated by the prairies in the middle. It used to be that they almost never got seriously infected by parasites because it was just too cold for a lot of the burrowing insects to dig in… but that’s not true anymore. Which means the Prairies are no longer functioning as a quarantine, and we can fully expect any new tree parasite that shows up in B.C. to show up in Ontario a few years later after working its way through the northern forests. And vice versa.

    At my previous job, I worked in the same building as people who were working on the Boreal Ecosystem Atmospheric Study (BOREAS) project, where they were using satellite imagery to track the health of the northern forests where it was impractical to get people on the ground. They’d calibrated some of it to the point where they could at least somewhat differentiate tree species by spectrographic analysis, letting them get a good idea of how the mix of trees changed over time. Sadly the original BOREAS project looks to have ended 25 years ago, and I don’t know what current work is still being done on that.

  2. says

    History seems to be littered with good programs that were abandoned for no good reason. It’s honestly a bit depressing.

  3. Callinectes says

    Only a couple of years ago the fields around me (semi-rural SE UK) turned black as fire spread through them all. The focus turned to keeping the trees and hedges from catching, which was successful, and kept the fires contained and the houses safe. The flames themselves were practically invisible. Grass burns low.

  4. says

    I think it may depend on the grass. Apparently an invasive species of grass is part of why the situation on Maui got so bad.

    Either way, I’m glad your fire was contained!

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