After 3 Weeks of Wildfire Exile, a City of 20,000 Returns

Twenty-two days after they were evacuated from the capital of the Northwest Territories in the face of a racing wildfire, the roughly 20,000 residents of Yellowknife began returning home on Wednesday to refrigerators filled with spoiled food to restart their lives in a city that averted disaster.

Cars and trucks bearing the territory’s distinctive polar-bear-shaped license plate took to the road this week after officials declared on Monday that it would most likely be safe to return on Wednesday.

The last highway roadblock impeding access was lifted at 11 a.m. local time, earlier than expected. Scheduled airline flights resumed on Wednesday.

A series of evacuee flights on chartered and military aircraft from the Alberta cities of Edmonton and Calgary, which both hosted thousands of Yellowknife residents, were also scheduled for Wednesday. (To drive from Edmonton, the closest major city, takes about 24 hours.)

The fire that menaced Yellowknife and forced the Aug. 16 evacuation order continues to burn, and the entire territory remains under a state of emergency because of wildfires. But during the evacuation period, firefighting crews managed to keep the fire about 15 kilometers, or about 10 miles, from the city’s western edges.

Officials deemed it safe to return in part because of cooler temperatures and favorable wind directions.

Actions taken while Yellowknife was largely empty also helped: Crews, some of which included members of the Canadian Armed Forces, cleared large swaths of the exurban forest in strips about 100 meters wide and installed large sprinkler systems to create a protective fire break. Water dropped by aircraft further saturated the protective zone.

Essential workers, including store employees, were allowed to return earlier this week. But Yellowknife’s residents were being warned to expect long lines and limited hours at many shops. They have been told to bring food and supplies to last at least 72 hours.

While the return, like the evacuation, generally proceeded smoothly on Thursday, a transport-truck accident along the route temporarily cut electricity to parts of Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, including an area with one of the few gas stations. Fort Providence is a hamlet about 300 kilometers, or less than 200 miles, from Yellowknife.

Elsewhere in Canada, wildfires continued to burn in parts of British Columbia particularly near Kelowna, but only 405 properties were under evacuation orders, down from a peak of about 2,500. Nationwide, there are currently 1,056 active wildfires, with 697 of them classified as out of control. Most uncontrolled wildfires are likely to continue to burn until winter’s arrival.

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