A wait-and-see approach won’t cut it for today’s intense wildfires

John Vaillant
Smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire fills the air and nearly blocks out the sun in Kelowna. DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Aug. 18, 2023

The Beast is back, and this time it’s coming for the news cycle.

Headline after headline, week after week, Canada is now into its third month of relentless, record-shattering wildfires. If you’ve lost track of the coast-to-coast evacuation orders, join the club because we are enduring a frenzy of woodland immolation not seen since Australia’s historic and devastating bushfire season of 2019-20. So far, Canadian fires have burned an area larger than Greece, and about the size of Michigan. Three firefighters have died, and nearly 200,000 citizens (think: Regina) have been forced to leave their homes, a tally that grows, literally, by the hour.

What on Earth is going on out there? A potent cocktail of drought, heat, fuel and wind, exacerbated by two centuries of fossil fuel-generated carbon dioxide, is enabling massive and prolonged combustion that shows no signs of letting up. This week, in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, darkness-at-noon smoke and life-threatening fire conditions have caused cars to crash and even to melt as evacuees fled from town to town in search of what has proven to be only temporary safety. It’s generating its own class of PTSD, with thousands more victims being added to those scarred by LyttonFort McMurray and Slave Lake. Lahaina, Hawaii, was recently destroyed by a fire that killed dozens of people, many as they fled in their cars, just as Canadians are doing now, up north. Just days ago, Enterprise, a small community in the Northwest Territories, was 90 per cent destroyed by a huge fire that has been wreaking havoc along the south shore of Great Slave Lake.

On the north side of that vast inland sea, Yellowknife is also being evacuated. The community of nearly 22,000 is currently surrounded by huge, out-of-control wildfires, a situation unnervingly similar to Fort McMurray’s in May, 2016, when several significant fires burned in and around that city. The two regional hubs share other liabilities that include a remote location, one road out, a finite fuel supply and toxic air. Depending on the weather, the fires (there are three of them nearby) could close the air to planes, and the road to cars, at almost any time.

Thousands forced to flee Kelowna; Yellowknife empties as noon deadline nears

Wind drives wildfire and when you’re surrounded, as Yellowknife is, any direction can be dangerous. But it’s more dangerous now: 21st century fire is hotter, faster and more explosive. No one who has experienced it can quite believe how quickly it arrives. It was flying embers that first ignited many of the homes in Fort McMurray, Slave Lake and Lytton (and now West Kelowna!). It is this terrible, but increasingly common scenario that Yellowknife’s leadership took its time responding to. Until Wednesday evening, when Mayor Rebecca Alty ceded control of the fire response to provincial authorities, she emphasized calm and caution along with firebreaks and sprinklers. The déjà vu was unsettling: this was the same approach Fort McMurray’s leaders took to the Horse River Fire, which would soon become “The Beast.” By the time their “Keep calm and carry on” policy pivoted to a full evacuation, the fire was already in the city. In the end, the firebreaks and sprinklers failed, and it wasn’t city officials who told residents it was time to evacuate, it was the overwhelming presence of the fire itself.

Over the past month or so, residents of Yellowknife, concerned about nearby fires, have been getting in touch with me. Mostly, we discussed Fort McMurray and the hazards associated with a mass, last-minute exodus. Concerned by the lack of an evacuation order, Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams called me on Tuesday to discuss the matter, and he posted the interview right away. Within 24 hours, 13,000 people, mostly northerners, had listened to it, or read the transcript. On Wednesday, before the official order, citizens began evacuating pre-emptively. Mr. Williams polled people leaving town; out of 200 respondents, 70 per cent told him our conversation was a factor in their decision to evacuate early.

Right now, Yellowknife’s small airport and the highway out of town are lined with residents who stand like refugees, waiting for a ride out that may take hours, or days, to come.

And all of them are wondering: Will the fires get here first?

[Top photo: Smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire fills the air and nearly blocks out the sun in Kelowna.DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS]