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Trudeau calls urgent ministers’ meeting as fire forces Yellowknife evacuation

Officials in Northwest Territories say the evacuation has so far been safe and orderly
Heavy smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky in Yellowknife on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. Residents of the capital of the Northwest Territories and two neighbouring First Nation communities have been ordered to evacuate by Friday because of an encroaching wildfire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Angela Gzowski

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to convene an urgent meeting with ministers and senior officials today as residents of the capital of Northwest Territories are ordered to evacuate the area because of an encroaching wildfire.

The evacuation order issued late Wednesday applies to Yellowknife, which has a population of about 20,000 people, as well as the nearby communities of Ndilo and Dettah.

Trudeau, who is on vacation in Tofino, B.C., updated his itinerary Thursday to include an urgent meeting of the incident response group, a cabinet committee that typically consists of senior ministers and top officials.

But it’s not yet clear who else is expected to be in attendance. An update on the discussions is expected this afternoon.

Residents of Yellowknife and neighbouring communities have been ordered to leave by noon on Friday, and reception centres for Yellowknife evacuees are set to open at noon Thursday in three Alberta communities.

Officials in Northwest Territories say the evacuation has so far been safe and orderly as convoys flee wildfires in the territorial capital.

Fire Information Officer Mike Westwick says convoys organized by government emergency workers have started to evacuate Yellowknife’s outskirts and northern edge, where a wildfire is just 16 kilometres away.

Strong north winds today could push the fire towards the highway needed for the evacuation, so Westwick says the goal is to have everyone out of the city of 20,000 by tomorrow at noon.

No new wildfires have been reported in the Northwest Territories in the last 24 hours, but that is scant relief as 236 blazes are already burning — including fires threatening Yellowknife and Hay River.

A wildfire update posted by the territory says more than 21-thousand square kilometres have already been burned.

Officials reported overnight that there was some progress on the fire moving toward Hay River, saying the situation had taken a turn in their favour.

They say winds have been pushing the fire back onto itself, stalling the flames about 10 kilometres from the community on the south shore of Great Slave Lake.

Evacuees from the Northwest Territories are finding refuge in cities with their own devastating history of wildfires.

Michel Labine says the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray, where 2016 wildfires resulted in one of the costliest disasters in Canadian history, has been extremely welcoming and helpful since he arrived on an emergency evacuation flight on Saturday.

Labine, who spent his career as a renewable resource officer dealing with wildlife and forest fires, says the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see across the street when he fled his home in Fort Smith over the weekend.

He says he hopes his home is still standing when he can return.

A reception centre just south of Edmonton is set to open its doors to wildfire evacuees from the South Slave region of Northwest Territories.

The centre in Leduc, Alta., was slated to open at 8 a.m. for evacuees from the region, including Hay River and Enterprise, after centres in St. Albert and Grande Prairie reached capacity.

The territorial government says evacuees from Yellowknife who can’t find their own accommodations can head to centres in Valleyview, Fox Creek or Red Deer, Alta., which are all due to open at noon.

The territorial government says Yellowknife evacuees traveling by air to Alberta are being directed to Calgary.

Leaders from across the territories are also pledging their support. Whitehorse mayor Laura Cabott says the city is finalizing plans to offer logistics and humanitarian supports for as long as needed.

The government of Nunavut says it’s in regular contact with the Northwest Territories to determine what help it can provide.

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