Yellowknife, a city in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT), witnessed the evacuation of over 20,000 people this week as wildfires threatened the area. 

The NWT fires are part of Canada’s worst-ever fire season. Millions of hectares have been destroyed, and air pollution from the fires has affected both Canada and the United States.

Let’s delve into some questions and answers about the wildfires in Canada, which have impacted various regions. 

What Regions of the Country Have Been Burned?

Traditionally, wildfires are common in Canada’s western provinces. However, this year, eastern provinces like Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario have also experienced devastating wildfires.

Recently, the focus returned to the west, as wildfires burned approximately 16 km (10 miles) northwest of Yellowknife. According to Reuters, there is a possibility that the fires may reach the outskirts of the city by the weekend. 

As of Wednesday, Canada is facing 1,054 active wildfires, including 230 in the NWT. 669 wildfires are deemed out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center. 

This year alone, there have been 5,738 wildfires, resulting in the burning of 13.7 million hectares (33.9 million acres). Tragically, Canada has lost at least four firefighters during these incidents.

The largest wildfire season before 2023 was in 1989. The 2023 fires have burned almost twice as much land as the 1989 fires.

This year’s wildfires started in late April, affecting the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The fires caused the displacement of over 30,000 people at its peak and temporary shutdowns of oil and gas production facilities.

The Situation in the NWT

Yellowknife residents were ordered to evacuate by Friday at noon (1800 GMT). With limited infrastructure, the NWT (which has a population of only 46,000) has faced challenges in accommodating the evacuation. There is only one road leading out of Yellowknife. 

An NWT hamlet called Enterprise has already been destroyed by a wildfire. Fortunately, the wildfire threatening Hay River, located further south on the Great Slave Lake, has temporarily stopped progressing. 

Health Impacts

The ongoing wildfires have significantly impacted air quality, causing health concerns throughout Canada and parts of the United States. Authorities have issued warnings and recommendations, urging people to limit their time outdoors or wear masks. 

Yellowknife and Fort Smith have been designated as “very high risk” areas according to the Canadian government’s air quality health index. In addition, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is considered “high risk” despite being located 1,700 km (1,060 miles) to the southeast. 

Eastern Canadian wildfires earlier this summer led to air quality warnings for Ottawa (the capital of Canada) and Toronto (Canada’s financial hub). The wildfire smoke extended south into the United States, covering New York City in an orange haze.

Is Climate Change a Factor?

According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the rise in wildfires can be attributed to climate change. Ellen Whitman, a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service, is more cautious. She notes that it’s not easy the prove the relationship between climate change and a specific fire season.

Coastal areas are projected to receive increased rainfall due to climate change, which could potentially reduce the risk of fires. However, a warmer atmosphere has the ability to extract moisture from the ground more effectively, contributing to an elevated fire risk.

Most studies indicate that fire seasons across North America are becoming longer. 

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