Northwest Territories capital & critters survive three-week evacuation
YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories, Canada––Yellowknife residents and their animals are returning home so rapidly after a three-week evacuation due to wildfires that Ollie Williams, founder of Cabin Radio in Yellowknife, on September 8, 2023 reported an “Alarming uptick in speeding” on the highways leading north to the Northwest Territories capital city.
Humans and critters headed home to a community that survived a “goal line stand” nine miles northwest of the city limits. Hastily cut firebreaks, water bombers, fortuitous rainfall, and just plain good luck saved Yellowknife, even as the smaller towns of Enterprise and Hay River were incinerated.
20,000 people & their pets left; now returning
Across Canada, more than 41 million acres burned in wildfires during the record 2023 fire season. Five humans were killed.
But incredibly, in and around Yellowknife there was no reported loss of human life, and little reported loss of animal life.
Almost twice as many people and pets evacuated from Yellowknife as were displaced by the August 8, 2023 firestorm in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, yet with very little drama comparable to the stories emerging from Lahaina.
Ordered in mid-August 2023 to leave Yellowknife by August 18, more than 20,000 residents––two-thirds of the entire Northwest Territories human population, most of them First Nations people who had never before left the Northwest Territories––streamed south to Alberta in desperate convoys.
Bears, elk, moose, caribou & bison took the highway too
They threaded their way through thick smoke 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, with trees aflame on either side, dodging bears, elk, moose, caribou and bison who also saw the cleared highway right-of-way as their best chance for survival––at least, that is, until the animals reached places where they could wade into the lake and hunker down.
Many of the evacuees had no idea where they were going. Many were short of gasoline for their vehicles, relying on the generosity of others with jerry cans retrieved from boats and even chainsaw sheds to get through to Fort Providence, three and a half to four hours south, the first place to refuel at actual gas station pumps.
Priority #1 for many is finding lost pets
The fire that threatened Yellowknife and as many as 120 other fires are still burning in the Northwest Territories, including the fire that razed Hay River and another that forced the evacuation of Fort Smith, a community of 2,500 whose residents are still in exile.
People who returned to Yellowknife, reported Nadine Yousif of BBC News, from Toronto, “have been advised they should be ready to be self-reliant for 72 hours,” since reopening stores and resuming normal public services will take at least that long.
Priority #1 for many of the returnees is finding lost pets who either could not be found before the evacuation, or were evacuated by friends and family members to different temporary accommodations.
Who can bring back a doggie from Winnipeg?
“Hi, any evacuees in the Winnipeg area who may be returning to Edmonton or Yellowknife and can return with my doggie who evacuated to Winnipeg, it would be greatly appreciated,” posted an evacuee named Linda Sacrey to a Facebook page entitled “Families With Pets Evacuating Yellowknife 2023.”
As more residents returned to Yellowknife and learned through online inquires where their pets might be, such inquiries became increasingly common.
The Northwest Territories SPCA in Yellowknife kept a skeleton crew of veterinarians and vet techs on duty throughout the evacuation, but instead of trying to house animals at risk of having to quickly vacate their premises, relayed their pre-evacuation animal inventory to other shelters farther south, and then took in whatever strays were found around the town.
Hay River shelter dogs flown to Edmonton
“Emergency personnel evacuated multiple dogs from the Hay River Animal Shelter that are now seeking somewhere safe to reside for the duration of evacuation or until they find a more permanent home,” Elysia Marchand posted to “Families With Pets Evacuating Yellowknife 2023” on August 26, 2023.
Eleven dogs from Hay River were flown to Edmonton, more than six hundred miles south, before arrangements could be made to house them in Edmonton.
“There are 11 shelter dogs sitting on the tarmac in Edmonton and have nowhere to go! They need to picked up tonight!” appealed Michelle Steph to “Families With Pets Evacuating Yellowknife 2023.”
Steph later thanked “those who reached out and were able to pick up a dog during the late hours!,” adding “A huge THANK YOU to Phil and Fire Prevention Services who allowed the remainder of the dogs to hang out at their shop in Leduc for the night.”
Reuniting those dogs with their people may prove particularly difficult, since they were already lost before they were evacuated.
16 cats in Valleyview
“Garth Carman left his Hay River home just as the evacuation order was issued,” reported Tracey Lindeman for Wired.
“He and wife Linda had taken in five cats from people in Fort Smith,” Linbdeman said. “He loaded the cats into his new Jeep—along with his own three cats—and hit the road, with Linda following behind in her Subaru Legacy station wagon.
“Trucks and trailers careened as they spun around to escape. In the chaos Carman lost track of his wife. Poor cell service and even worse internet connectivity made it impossible to find her.
“Only when he saw her Subaru in the Hay River airport parking lot did he learn she had been sent to Alberta. Reunited at a friend’s house near the town of Valleyview, the pair are now taking care of 16 cats.”
“Handsome gray tabby with jade-colored eyes”
Lindeman also recounted the story of Theo, “a handsome gray tabby with jade-colored eyes,” belonging to a Yellowknife resident named Megan Cooper, who happened to be “on vacation in Europe” when the evacuation was ordered.
Desperate to save Theo and her dog Dandelion, Cooper took “a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris,” Lindeman wrote, “and then took a nine-hour flight to Calgary, with every intention of making it back home to Yellowknife in time to pack her animals up in her van and head south.”
But the crisis moved faster than Cooper could.
“By the time she landed in Alberta, a friend of a friend—a total stranger—had lured Theo out by shaking a package of cat treats,” Lindeman said. “Cooper will soon travel to Edmonton to be reunited with her pets who, at the time of writing, are en route to the city.”
Horse rescue heroine Sienna Hart Kellar
The CBC Weather Network broadcast the saga of Sienna Hart Kellar, who was still recovering from April 2023 back surgery when she heard about the Yellowknife evacuation.
“Kellar, from Innisfail, Alberta, is a professional horse trainer who grew up in Yellowknife. She learned to ride at North Country Stables in Yellowknife and has kept in touch with the owners.
“I grew up there, I started riding there when I was seven years old, and I mean, those horses I learned to ride on are still the horses that are there,” Kellar told the Weather Network.
Knowing that “North Country Stables didn’t have the trailers to move all 22 horses, some goats, mini ponies and mini donkeys” on the premises, “Kellar decided she had to act,” the Weather Channel summarized.
“Eight people in four trucks”
“Kellar started phoning friends and family and anybody else who might have a horse trailer and the inclination to drive 18 hours toward an active wildfire zone.
Soon Kellar headed a convoy of “eight people in four trucks, each vehicle hauling an empty horse trailer,” the Weather Channel summarized.
“They took turns driving. Several times they were slowed by police blockades set up to prevent people from driving toward the evacuation zone. Once they explained their mission, though, they were allowed through.”
Recounted Kellar, “When we hit Enterprise, I think that’s when it really hit all of us how dangerous what we were doing was, because Enterprise was completely burned down. Like, everywhere you looked, every single house, building, shop, was burned to the ground.”
Retrieving the animals from Yellowknife was only the first part of the mission.
From there, Kellar and the convoy hauled the North Country Stables animals 12 hours south to the Grande Prairie, Alberta farm of Mark Benoit.
“Benoit is originally from Hay River, Northwest Territories,” the CBC explained, “and his family lost their farm there, at Paradise Gardens, in last year’s floods. He remembers how people stepped up to help his family out at that time, so he was happy to offer up his space when Kellar called.
“Pay our dues back, right?” Benoit said.
During the thirty hours that Kellar and her convoy were en route to Yellowknife and back, Benoit built corrals to accommodate the new arrivals.
“I had my mother and my brother and my two kids helping, and the wife, and we just buckled down and got it done,” Benoit told the CBC.
Wildfires in British Columbia also forced thousands of residents to evacuate, if they could, but some remained behind to protect animals they could not move quickly.
“Shirley Mainprize received the evacuation alert as a fire was getting dangerously close to the Turtle Valley Donkey Refuge in Chase, British Columbia, which she co-founded in 1999,” reported Frederik-Xavier Duhamel for the Toronto Globe & Mail.
“You don’t move 100 donkeys quickly. They’ll panic and they’ll plant their feet, and you don’t move them. They’re too strong,” Mainprize told Duhamel. “So we chose to stay.”
Mainprize repeatedly reported herself and the donkeys safe during the next ten days, by which time the fire that had menaced them was out.
Effects of habitat loss yet to be seen
The Kelowna chapter of the British Columbia SPCA, the closest to most of the fire zones, “provided a safe haven for 66 evacuated animals and offered emergency boarding to six animals in need,” during August 2023 fire evacuations, the organization posted.
With the immediate wildfire crisis mostly over with, Karen Hodges, a professor of biology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, expressed concern for the effects of habitat loss on endangered and threatened species including fishers, martens, lynx, northern goshawks, and caribou.