Fort Providence, N.W.T. offers island of refuge for weary wildfire evacuees

Click to play video: 'Fort Providence rallies around Yellowknife evacuees'
Fort Providence rallies around Yellowknife evacuees
Thousands of people from Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories have been making their way south to safety in Alberta but the drive is long and there are few gas stations. Sarah Ryan went to see how the community of Fort Providence, about 300 kilometres down the highway from the northern capital, is doing what it can to help – Aug 18, 2023

This is a first-hand account from Global News reporter Sarah Ryan of what was happening in southern N.W.T. as thousands of evacuees drove through the area on their way to safety, after being evacuated from their homes due to ongoing wildfires. Sarah flew over the area and talked to locals on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.

Flying over Fort Providence, a hamlet of about 800 people in the southern part of the Northwest Territories, it’s hard to miss the dozens and dozens of vehicles lined up on the highway.

They’re full of evacuees from Yellowknife — needing to fuel up, use the bathrooms and pick up essentials before continuing their drive south out of the territory.

But what we couldn’t see from the sky was the volunteers in bright safety vests — directing traffic and answering questions.

Fort Providence is the first stop south of Yellowknife, about 300 kilometres down the only road out of the capital city.

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One of the volunteers, Keith Squirrel, said he’s never seen anything like this in his lifetime.

He explained the evacuees driving south are stressed: “They’ve been anxious and impatient — but good so far.”

Nearby, a group of local ladies — nurses and seniors home staff, were giving up their time, their money and their kitchens — making sandwiches and treats, putting them in care packages.

A volunteer standing at a safety truck after giving out supplies to people evacuating the Northwest Territories. Sarah Ryan / Global News

In the rain, volunteers walked up and down the highway welcoming evacuees, offering up kindness — a bright spot on a difficult day.

“It’s for our safety [that we evacuate],” said Yellowknife resident Andrew Bucknor. “It’s important we all come together as one.”
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“Some people were crying, because they were so thankful that somebody’s here,” explained volunteer Sheryl Yakeleya.

Yakeleya and her friends imagine the evacuees are scared and they tell us as much, as they slowly inch forward in the lineup for gas.

“[We’re] sad and worried about what’s happening,” explained Florence Bishop.
Click to play video: 'Evacuation efforts intensify as Yellowknife residents seek escape from smoke and danger'
Evacuation efforts intensify as Yellowknife residents seek escape from smoke and danger

Naïve to the situation unfolding, the toddler sitting beside her smiles and waves to the camera.

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Her mom, Tasha Black, says they packed her daughter’s things, their identification, and hit the highway.

“We’re heading to Edmonton and we’ll just see what happens when we get there,” she said.

An aerial view of the line up of evacuees trying to gas up as they leave the Northwest Territories. Sarah Ryan / Global News

Our driver, a kind-hearted local named Miranda Elleze, then takes us to the Snowshoe Inn, explaining that a huge mandatory fire ban sign at the entrance to Fort Providence has been there for months.

“Fort Providence has been on high alert all summer. This week we had preparations, we had a town meeting. Right now we have a fire guard being cleared,” she said.

At the motel, person after person comes through the doors, many with animals — both dogs and cats.

“It’s been very chaotic, hectic and very stressful for a lot of our guests,” explains motel manager Cathie Clark.

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“Just to be able to give them a safe space — even if it’s just for a night or two, that they can recover before moving south — make it a bit less stressful. We’re happy to help that.”

One guest is an RCMP officer, evacuated from his home as well.

Another evacuee sits in the foyer, waiting with his confused dog for a mechanic after the vehicle they were in had a tire blow out on their first leg of the journey south.

A lone man who wasn’t able to make a reservation before the 33 rooms filled up is handed a sleeping bag, and instructions on how to get to the conference room, where cots have been set up for evacuees with nowhere else to rest.

Cathie Clark says the Snowshoe Inn has 33 rooms, yet it housed nearly 150 people Wednesday night – filling its conference room with cots. Sarah Ryan / Global News

On Wednesday night, nearly 150 guests sought shelter in whatever space they could find at the Snowshoe Inn — some even sharing rooms.

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Many from Yellowknife tell us they’re heading to Edmonton.

Under ideal conditions, that trip is 15 hours long — but that won’t be the case here.

In addition to fire burning on both sides of the Mackenzie Highway, there’s a lot of traffic, plus those long lines at gas stations and even shortages of fuel.

The Snowshoe Inn’s station had a big spray-painted sign that read “No Gas, Diesel Available” on Thursday.

On Friday though, a fuel truck replenished their supply.

Before we head back to the Fort Providence airfield, Elleze tells us she’s packed some bags — just in case things take a turn and their safe haven, isn’t safe any longer.

Click to play video: 'N.W.T. wildfires: Aerial look at car convoy through Fort Providence'
N.W.T. wildfires: Aerial look at car convoy through Fort Providence

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