Yellowknife faded into a ghost town in the face of looming wildfires Friday as the mayor of the territorial capital urged residents to leave and not fear looting.
“Grocery stores aren’t open. There’s no services here in town. The smoke’s going to get thick, so really encouraging folks (to) head out now,” Rebecca Alty told CBC News Friday morning.
“Please don’t spread rumours. There’s no looting in Yellowknife.”
“RCMP are patrolling the neighbourhoods. I contacted them this morning. I saw them on my walk to work this morning.”
“There is no looting. Your homes are safe. You’ve gotta lock up and head out of town.”
Thousands of residents in the city of 20,000 continued to leave by air or road Friday ahead of a noon deadline to leave. The goal is to get everyone out should the fire, about 15 kilometres from the city’s outskirts, advance and cut off access.
Officials said roads would stay open and flights would continue past the deadline as long as it is safe.
Inside Yellowknife and surrounding communities, once-busy streets were emptied, with stores and businesses closed.
“It’s a ghost town,” said Kieron Testart, who was going door-to-door in the nearby communities of Dettah and NDilo on a cold, smoky and windy morning to check on people.
“This is kind of the D-Day for the fire effort. If it’s going to get bad, it’s going to get bad today.”
In Yellowknife, gas stations – if they had fuel – were still operating as of Friday morning. One grocery store and a pharmacy remained open – as did a bar, where exhausted workers were gathering at the end of long shifts.
“It’s kind of like having a pint at the end of the world,” Testart said, describing the evacuation so far as orderly.
People are clearing out for the most part, he said, although some First Nations people have chosen to take shelter in cabins or camps out on the land.
“Our members know the land better than anyone else,” Testart said. “We’re confident they’ll be safe out there.”
Fire information officer Mike Westwick said work continued to battle the flames.
“Busy skies today,” said Westwick.
A total of 11 air tankers were flying, with another plane dropping fire retardant. A 10-kilometre fire line had been dug, backed up by 20 kilometres of hose and a plethora of pumps – “the most extensive heavy water operation we’ve ever seen in the territory,” Westwick said.
However, winds from the north and northwest were predicted for both Friday and Saturday, threatening to wreak havoc.
Also, hoped-for rain didn’t materialize overnight, with a scant millimetre falling.
“Both of those winds would push the fires in directions we don’t want them to go,” Westwick said.
“We’ve still got some really difficult days ahead. There’s no denying that.”
The evacuation of Yellowknife was ordered late Wednesday, and sprinklers, water cannons and fire guards were set up.
On Thursday, in addition to commercial planes, about 1,500 people left on evacuation flights.
Officials said more flights are scheduled for today that could take about 1,800 people out of the city.
The main highway out has been reported as having steady, orderly convoys of vehicles headed for evacuation centres in various parts of Alberta.
Several other communities in the territory, including the town of Hay River, ordered residents out earlier this week.
Shane Thompson, the N.W.T.’s environment and communities minister, told a news conference late Thursday that the fire situation remains critical.
There are 236 fires burning in the territory.
“I urge all residents under evacuation orders to please adhere to them as they are issued,” Thompson said.
“These orders are never issued lightly and always consider our collective health and safety. You could be jeopardizing your safety and that of others.”
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