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Yellowknife mayor provides the latest update on evacuations in the Canadian city

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

An entire city in northern Canada is facing an evacuation order today as the country continues to grapple with its worst wildfire season on record, with some 1,000 wildfires burning as of today. Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, the province just north of Alberta, has issued an evacuation for all of the city's 20,000 residents. Rebecca Alty is the mayor of Yellowknife and joins us now. Mayor Alty, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

REBECCA ALTY: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So people there in Yellowknife were ordered to evacuate yesterday evening, but where do things stand now?

ALTY: So, yes, the evacuation order was issued yesterday evening. And the big purpose was - we only have one highway in and out of the community. We only have one road in and out of the community. And unfortunately, that's where the fire is as well. And so the highway is open right now 'cause the conditions are good. It's still smoky, but folks are able to pass by the highway. So the fire is approaching. We issued the evacuation order. Probably kilometers worth of vehicles were driving out yesterday, again today. Flights have also begun because if you don't have a vehicle, for those who have medical conditions, seniors, etc., like, driving through this smoke is - folks are doing it with N95 masks on.

SUMMERS: Oh, goodness.

ALTY: You're going through - it was about four hours to make it through this 60-kilometer section. I don't know what that would be in miles. But it's been a tough, tough couple days and, I'd say, a tough month. That's when the fire first started. But ever since Sunday, the fire's been advancing towards the city.

SUMMERS: So advancing towards the city since Sunday. What can you tell us about the current state of the fires? How close are they to Yellowknife?

ALTY: They are 16 kilometers away from Yellowknife right now, and - oh, sorry, 15 kilometers. It did move one kilometer yesterday, but that was better than the anticipated 5 kilometers that it was doing.

SUMMERS: Wow.

ALTY: So it is coming. There's a lot of work underway, I have to stress, to stop it, to slow the fire down, a lot of work on the ground. We'd call firebreaks, and that's where you're basically cutting trees down, creating this hundred-meter corridor where there'd be no trees so when the fire approaches, it doesn't have anything to burn. The territorial government is also looking to drop a fire retardant line. So that's airplanes dropping water on the fire but other airplanes actually putting this fire retardant on the trees - so creating a number of things - hopefully also trying to do a controlled burn.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

ALTY: So these three lines of defense to slow the fire from actually reaching Yellowknife. But it will be - you know, if we are able to do a controlled burn, that's a lot of smoke in the air. The air quality - it just - it's not healthy for folks to be around.

SUMMERS: I mean, and just to put that into perspective for folks, we're talking about a little over nine miles away here. I want to ask you before we let you go in about the 30 seconds we have left - I know that you were born and raised in Yellowknife. Just as someone who grew up there, have you ever experienced anything of this magnitude before?

ALTY: No, no. The last two fires that were kind of big in our region were in '98 and 2014, but nothing that threatened Yellowknife so much that we even had to consider an evacuation, let alone actually issue an evacuation. So this is Yellowknife's first evacuation. And...

SUMMERS: Wow.

ALTY: I think what makes it unprecedented as well is that we are the eighth community this week being isolated - or, sorry, evacuated.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

ALTY: So it's...

SUMMERS: It's tough.

ALTY: ...Been a tough, tough week.

SUMMERS: Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty. Thank you so much for being with us, and please stay safe.

ALTY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kira Wakeam
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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