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Twenty Thousand People Ordered to Evacuate as Wildfire Nears Northwest Territories Capital

Twenty-thousand people are under an evacuation order as wildfire nears the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories on Friday.

Officials announced the evacuation order for residents of Yellowknife on Wednesday, requiring them to be out of the evacuation zone by noon on Friday (local time). Evacuation orders are also in effect for communities near the capital, including N’dilo and Dettah—Dene First Nation communities.

The orders affect nearly half of the 41,000 people who live in the territory that covers 519,735 square miles near the Arctic Circle, and it is the largest evacuation order in Canada this year.

Authorities are concerned that winds might cause the fires to block the main evacuation route, which is why officials have stressed that residents should plan to be out of the area by noon local time today.

“I want to be clear that the city is not in immediate danger, and there’s a safe window for residents to leave the city by road and by air,” said Shane Thompson, a government minister for the territories, in a press conference covered by the Associated Press. “Without rain, it is possible it will reach the city outskirts by the weekend.”

Along with vehicle transportation, residents have also fled the area via plane. Ten flights left Yellowknife on Thursday with 1,500 passengers and another 22 flights with 1,800 more passengers are expected to leave Friday, the AP reports.

The inability to share news information on social media in Canada, however, is hampering efforts to evacuate.

On 1 August, Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram), implemented features to make news links and content posted by news publishers and broadcasters in Canada unviewable by people in Canada. Meta said in a statement that it was implementing this policy to comply with the Online News Act, which requires revenue sharing between digital platforms and news outlets.

Roughly 77 percent of Canadians use Facebook with one in four relying on the social media service as a primary news provider, said Shawna Bruce, an instructor at the disaster and emergency management program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, in an interview with the BBC. “The timing could not have been worse for this.”

When Canadians attempt to share a link to a news story, for instance, the content will display for individuals based outside of Canada. But for those within Canada, an alert that the content is not available appears instead.

“Struck by the inability to share news links on Facebook due to Meta’s news ban in Canada—as well as poor cellular reception in some areas—people in Yellowknife and surrounding communities are relying on word-of-mouth and the radio to get up-to-the-minute information,” The Guardian reports. “Katrina Nokleby, an elected official and geological engineer in Yellowknife, said the social media platform was now rife with miscommunication about the fires and encouraged people to check out local network Cabin Radio’s live blog to get the facts.”

Meanwhile, Harjit Sajjan, Canada's minister of emergency preparedness, has approved a request to provide federal assistance to the Northwest Territories Government to support efforts to combat the wildfires. As part of the effort, the Canadian Armed Forces are being deployed to the region to assist with Type III fire-fighting and to provide airlift resources for evacuations, logistics, and planning.

“Canadian Armed Forces troops deployed to the Northwest Territories will be working in support of the [territories’] wildfire management teams already working to keep Northerners safe,” said Captain Dough Layton, deputy commander of Joint Task Force North, in a statement. “Our members will be used to enhance existing efforts, with the majority of our personnel engaged in Type III firefighting activities; which includes work such as hotspot dousing. As this situation evolves, the numbers of personnel and locations will be adjusted as needed to ensure our support complements and enhances territorial resources.”

There are more than 236 active fires in the Northwest Territories, with 2,126,254 hectares affected so far by the blazes. This year is Canada’s worst wildfire season on record with more than 5,500 fires reported, which have burned approximately 13.4 million hectares. The previous record was set in 1989 when 7.6 million hectares burned in Canada, the CBC reports.

Canadian officials confirmed in a 6 July update that higher-than-normal fire activity is likely to stretch across the country from British Columbia through western Quebec and that the activity is due to climate change.

To better position Canada to respond to future fires, the government is investing in training more firefighting personnel and purchasing firefighting equipment. It has also made plans to upgrade the National Fire Equipment Cache in Banff National Park to act as a central equipment repository for Parks Canada.

The frequency, severity, and duration of wildfires are increasing in multiple regions of the world, caused in part by climate change, according to Taming Wildfires in the Context of Climate Change, published by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in May 2023.

“Rising temperatures and drought conditions, coupled with changing precipitation and wind patterns, are likely to make extreme fire weather more frequent and to extend the duration of the wildfire season (i.e. the period when weather conditions are conducive to the occurrence of wildfires) in many regions of the world,” according to the report. “In the western United States, extreme fire weather is projected to more than double under a +3.0° Celsius (37.4° Fahrenheit) warming scenario, compared to pre-industrial levels. Globally, under a 4º Celsius (39.2° Fahrenheit) warming scenario, wildfire frequency is projected to increase by 30 percent by 2100.”

Other Wildfire News We’re Watching…

  • Nearly 8,000 people were evacuated or confined on the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife as a wildfire burned across the area. Spain deployed firefighters and military personnel to get the fire under control.

  • Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya resigned Thursday evening following widespread criticism for not using emergency sirens to alert residents to evacuate as a wildfire closed in on Lahaina. 

  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a wildfire disaster declaration for roughly 75 percent of the U.S. state’s counties. At least 8,500 acres of Texas have burned since 1 August.

  • A new study published in Environmental Research Letters predicts that wildfires will damage at least $22 billion worth of property by 2049 if climate action and policy are not implemented.