Convoys through the smoke dodge bison, bears, elk, & moose
YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories, Canada––Mindful of the August 10-11, 2023 near-annihilation of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii by wind-driven wildfire, the Northwest Territories and Canadian federal governments on the afternoon of August 17, 2023 expedited an evacuation order already in effect for all 20,000 residents of Yellowknife, the territorial capital, and all 5,000 residents of the Hay River region, most of whom were already fleeing.
The first evacuation order, issued on August 16, 2023, when the closest of two out-of-control forest fires remained ten miles from Yellowknife, called for residents to be ready to head south by noon on August 18, 2023.
But that estimate of how rapidly the fires might move proved excessively optimistic.
Two-thirds of the Northwest Territories population
With the 600,000-acre largest fire less than four miles from Yellowknife by sunset on August 17, 2023, two-thirds of the largely First Nations population of the Northwest Territories had either piled family, pets, and whatever else they could take into whatever vehicles they had, beginning the nine-hour drive to Alberta, or were mustered at the Yellowknife airport, awaiting evacuation to Calgary, Alberta, by the Canadian Armed Forces.
All flights were reportedly accepting any and all pets, with or without travel crates, but the Northwest Territories SPCA stationed a pickup truck full of travel crates at the airport to help evacuees who had none.
Only emergency personnel, chiefly firefighters, were asked to remain behind.
Amid the chaos, officials on August 11, 2023 acknowledged having shot two of five bears who wandered into Yellowknife in the days before the emergency evacuation.
“With wildfires, they are displaced from their regular habitat, and with dry conditions, there are less berries to eat – leading them to look for food in town,” a Northwest Territories wildlife department spokesperson told Canadian Press.
Northwest Territories SPCA prepared, but then the fires hit the high winds fan
The Northwest Territories SPCA had prepared to receive animals belonging to residents of smaller communities, evacuated from the paths of wildfires burning at as many as 250 other locations around the territories.
On August 9, 2023 the Yellowknife Elks Lodge bolstered the Northwest Territories resources with a donation of $10,000.
On August 15, 2023, the Northwest Territories SPCA posted to Facebook that staff and personnel from Veterinarians Without Borders “are closely monitoring the situation in Yellowknife and taking steps to address any needs that would come with an evacuation notice within the city.
“We are currently identifying a location that could serve as a temporary facility for dogs who are not able to stay with their owners should an area of Yellowknife be put on evacuation notice,” the Northwest Territories SPCA said. “This shelter would be put in place as a resource for pet owners in the city who are unable to keep their animal with them.
“SPCA is not able to board animals”
“Due to the SPCA location, the shelter is not able to board any animals from evacuation alerts and the SPCA is putting plans in place for the shelter animals,” the Northwest Territories SPCA announcement continued.
“We recommend residents of Yellowknife have a go-bag ready for their animals, including an extra leash, identification, water, food and medication. We recommend Yellowknife residents to have a plan in place for themselves and their animals if evacuation is potentially needed.”
Within 24 hours, though, the Northwest Territories SPCA itself was scrambling to evacuate, distributing travel crates to other evacuees and collecting trailers to try to evacuate horses.
“A big shoutout to Patrick Houghton and the North Caribou Air crew!” local reality television personality Mikey McBryan posted to Facebook late on August 17, 2023. “They did four evacuation flights today to Yellowknife and are hauling a plane load of animal crates, dog food, tubs and a Starlink for the Northwest Territories SPCA.”
Those supplies would most likely be used right at the airport.
Twice as many evacuees as from Maui
Altogether, more than twice as many people and animals were displaced by the Northwest Territories fires as were displaced by the Lahaina firestorm and three other wildfires on Maui.
Threading their way through thick smoke in convoys around the wide end of Great Slave Lake, the tenth largest lake in the world, struggling to stay on Highway 3, the two-lane asphalt road that is the only land route in or out of Yellowknife, many of the evacuees had no idea where they were going.
Many had never been outside the Northwest Territories before.
Three and a half to four hours south of Yellowknife, the drivers funneled into Fort Providence, waiting in seemingly endless lines to refuel.
Decision at the junction
After another three hours, dodging bison, elk, moose, bears, and other wildlife in the dark, the drivers would reach Highway 1, the MacKenzie Highway, where they would have to decide between turning west, essentially into a thousand more miles of forest with few communities, or southeast, passing the Kakisa fire menacing Hay River on their way to the town of Mackenzie Highway in northern Alberta.
The population centers of the province––Edmonton, Calgary, and Fort Macleod––would still be many hundreds of miles to the south.
On the one hand, evacuees managing to find accommodations in northern Alberta will have a shorter drive back to Yellowknife, when allowed to return to whatever may survive the fires.
On the other, accommodations, help, and reunions with family members who flew to Calgary would require most evacuees to drive for another six to 12 hours.
Alberta animal rescue groups offered food and other supplies to the Northwest Territories evacuees, but often mentioned that they could not offer fostering or sheltering help because they were already at capacity with the animals of evacuees from earlier wildfires closer to home.