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‘Ghost town’: Thousands continue to flee Yellowknife as wildfires loom

The mayor of Yellowknife says the evacuation of the territorial capital is proceeding peacefully, but a bit slower than she’d like, and the few stragglers left need to pack up and head south.

The mayor of Yellowknife says the evacuation of the territorial capital is proceeding peacefully, but a bit slower than she’d like, and the few stragglers left need to pack up and head south.

“We’ve got to take this seriously. We don’t need volunteers and we don’t need vigilantes driving around watching for fires,” Rebecca Alty said Friday.

Few people are left in the city, she said, other than emergency teams, fire crews, utility workers and Mounties.

“RCMP are doing lots of patrols in the community,” she said.

“We just need the last few residents to head out.”

Thousands of residents in the city of 20,000 continued to leave by air or road Friday. The goal was to get everyone out should the fire, about 15 kilometres from the city’s outskirts, advance and cut off access.

The evacuation was announced Wednesday, which Alty said was prudent given the flames and shifting winds.

“It’s not easy or quick to evacuate the whole capital,” she said. “You’ve got to make that decision earlier rather than later.”

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.

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.

Fire information officer Mike Westwick said workers continued to battle the flames.

Eleven 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.

On Thursday, in addition to commercial planes, about 1,500 people left on evacuation flights.

Officials said more flights were scheduled for Friday that could take about 1,800 more people out of the city.

Federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez told reporters the government is working with all airlines to add extra flights.

The Canadian Armed Forces said a Hercules transport plane flew 79 people to Edmonton on Thursday and more flights were set for Friday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was slated meet with evacuees at an Edmonton reception centre on Friday.

In Calgary, officials said they took in more than 1,200 evacuees on 14 evacuee flights from N.W.T. on Thursday and 2,300 more people were expected Friday.

On the ground, the main highway out of Yellowknife was reported as having steady, orderly convoys of vehicles headed for evacuation centres in various parts of Alberta.

About 3,700 vehicles were tracked southbound on the Deh Cho Bridge on Thursday.

Several other communities in the territory, including the town of Hay River, ordered residents out within the past week.

Hay River resident Etienne Cumlepen and his Rottweiler Axel were staying in Peace River, Alta., about 490 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Cumlepen, who moved from South Africa in the late 1990s, builds winter roads in the N.W.T. for a living to help get supplies to remote communities. He was working in Alberta when the evacuation of his town was ordered on Sunday.

“We’re stuck here and we’re not sure when we’re able to go back, or what we will find when we go back,” he said.

Stuart York said he had a feeling he would have to flee Yellowknife the day before the evacuation was ordered. He drove with his wife, two daughters and two dogs 24 hours from Yellowknife to Peace River in their camper, leaving the rest of their possessions in the evacuation zone.

“We got a lot of roots there and it’s all left behind in the house.”

There were 236 fires burning in the territory, which was not alone dealing with a fire crisis Friday.

In Kelowna, B.C., a state of emergency was declared as the city’s airport was shut down and thousands more West Kelowna residents were ordered to leave their homes in the face of a fast-burning wildfire roaring through the surrounding hills.