Lightning-caused wildfires spark evacuations in parts of N.W.T.

Video courtesy: Jorja Mulder

Raging wildfires in the Northwest Territories are causing immediate emergency evacuations as heat and flames inch closer to communities and leave ashes, sparks and smoke clouding the sky.

“Nothing like this has happened in the Northwest Territories before that would cause five communities to be evacuated all at once …,” said Jorja Mulder, a resident of Fort Smith, a town with about 2,000 people.

“I don’t think Fort Smith has even been evacuated in decades.”

Photos and video Mulder filmed from her cellphone show the sky coloured orange, red and black during the day.

The Northwest Territories government issued evacuation orders for Fort Smith, Hay River, Kakisa and the First Nation communities of Enterprise and K’atl’odeeche.

“It was a very dry year; it went from winter to summer in a few weeks like completely bypassed spring,” said Mulder. “We had a full-blown summer around the beginning of May, which should be all snow melting and mud, but there was no water, no mud.

“So everybody knew it was going to be a pretty bad year, but I don’t think we knew it was going to be this bad.”

Fort Smith urged residents Saturday to leave the area in a calm fashion over the next eight hours. The decision was based on a recommendation by Parks Canada due to forecasted fire behaviour.

The bridge outside Hay River, N.W.T. Sunday night. Photo courtesy Jorja Mulder

Twenty-five kilometres south in Alberta, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said all residents of Fort Fitzgerald, a hamlet along the Slave River, must also leave due to nearby wildfires.

Parks Canada said earlier Saturday that strong winds were forecasted to push Wood Buffalo National Park’s Fire 7 to the east, close to communities, and that residents of Fort Smith had already put its residents on evacuation alert.

Residents of a second town near the Alberta-Northwest Territories boundary were ordered to evacuate to safety Sunday evening due to encroaching wildfires, with a new fire meaning the only route out for one of the communities was by air.

An evacuation order was issued for residents in Hay River, NWT, earlier in the day, due to the risk of a wildfire that was approximately 60 km away at the time.

Hours later, an update on Hay River’s Facebook page said a fire had started near Paradise Gardens and Garden Road, impacting outbound traffic. It directed residents to instead evacuate to the Hay River airport for evacuation by air.

Another update nearly an hour later said data and voice communications to Hay River through service provider Northwestel had been compromised, limiting emergency responders’ communications, as well as to the public.

Something Mulder confirmed.

“(In) all of the Northwest Territories, there is no cell service, no internet; nobody can get a hold of anybody. The landlines also don’t work,” she added, noting “nobody knows who got out of Fort Smith.”

The highway at Hay River junction in the N.W.T. shows fire on the road to Enterprise First Nation.

Earlier in the day, transportation authorities in the Northwest Territories said the highway out of another community near the Alberta boundary that was being evacuated due to wildfire had closed.

Authorities had been warning that Highway 5 into Fort Smith could be shut as nearby fires continued to burn, and on Sunday afternoon the territory’s infrastructure department said the route was no longer open.

Fort Smith Mayor Fred Daniels said in a video posted online shortly before the highway shut that its closure could be imminent, and that the last evacuation bus would leave the community at 2 p.m. local time.

Daniels said the winds in Fort Smith were “really picking up” and that it would likely get very smoky in Fort Smith.

The town posted online that anyone remaining in the community should now shelter in place.

Highway 5 connects Fort Smith and the other evacuated communities with Hay River, near the south shore of Great Slave Lake, where many evacuees were being taken before that town was evacuated.

Several fires are burning in the vicinity but the ones that prompted the evacuation order for Fort Smith, according to an update issued by NWT Fire on Saturday evening, are the Wood Buffalo National Park wildfires.

Those fires are being fought by Parks Canada as well as firefighters from Alberta and the NWT.

Alberta Wildfire noted in an update Sunday afternoon that the Wood Buffalo fires are 432,320 hectares in size and are approximately 25 to 35 kilometres west and southwest of Fort Smith.

“Due to predicted weather and extreme fire behaviour over the next few days, a number of precautionary evacuation orders have been issued. While no communities are imminently threatened by this wildfire, there is concern over access via Highway 5, which has now been closed,” the Alberta update said.

“Those in Hay River should muster at the Hay River airport,” the town’s last update said Saturday. “Air transportation is being arranged for this evening.”

It said the lightning-caused fire was approximately 27,000 hectares in size and increased fire activity due to extreme winds pushed it within two kilometres of the highway.

– With files by The Canadian Press

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