Environment

I evacuated from Yellowknife this summer. Coming home was the hardest part.

“We’re all a little broken. There’s solidarity in that.”
Jessica Davey-Quantick
Opener

I was eating a hot dog when I decided it was time to evacuate Yellowknife. I’d been mostly awake for 72 hours, and boiled hot dogs with cheap yellow mustard seemed like as good a method of self-care as anything else. 

This was my fourth year working as an information officer with NWT Fire, staffing the public-information line during the annual fire season. From May until September each year, forest fires are a natural part of the boreal forest ecosystem. Providing daily updates online, answering the Fire Phone, working with reporters and doing live hits on CBC North were part of my summer routine. It was part of the normal rhythm: between spring bears emerging from hibernation and bison rutting season in the fall, slotted between warnings about picking berries in areas with arsenic and announcements for harvesters gathering beaver castors, fire season was de rigueur.

This year was different. 

It was a rough season. By the end of September 2023, the N.W.T. had recorded 303 fires, burning over four million hectares. That’s about the size of Denmark, and well beyond the record set in 2014, colloquially known as the Summer of Smoke, when 3.4 million hectares burned.            

It came in hot—literally—in May, when over 4,000 people were forced to evacuate Hay River and nearby Kátł’odeeche First Nation.  By my own count, that would be the first of 14 evacuation orders over the course of the summer. We all thought it was going to be like any other year: where fire was a thing you did off the side of your desk, alongside your regular duties, and I’d be clocking maybe a few extra hours here and there to keep up. We were very, very wrong.    

I was on duty later in May when Sambaa K’e, a fly-in only community of around 100 people in the Dehcho, was forced to flee. A constant stream of notices and alerts put people on edge, and there were several voluntary partial evacuations from communities of high-risk individuals. In June, it was Wekweètì’s turn—a community with only winter-road access. In July, Behchokǫ̀, a community just down the road from Yellowknife, was pushed out. And I was on shift in July when 25-year-old Adam Yeadon became the first N.W.T. wildfire fighter to die on the line since 1971. He died working on a fire near his home community, Fort Liard, leaving behind family, friends and a baby. I was the one who spoke to the press and prepared the official statements until his family was ready for his name to be released. By July 28, the NWT government had imposed the largest fire ban in its history, covering the entirety of the North Slave and South Slave regions. 

READ: The Age of Wildfires

I started what would end up being my last shift in August with over 200 fires burning throughout the territory. Winds gusting up to 60 km/h, unseasonable temperatures in the high 20s and drought conditions combined to send multiple fires hurtling toward communities in the South Slave, devouring everything in their paths in a matter of hours. We watched as Enterprise was almost completely wiped out. The fire chewed its way towards Hay River, which, by August 12, was full of evacuees from Fort Smith, who had already fled a different fire coming from the south. By August 13, for the first time, the government issued evacuation orders for Hay River and the surrounding area. The order was just: get to Alberta. People drove out through the smoke as flames lapped at their homes and water bombers patrolled the two-lane highway to try to keep it open. It felt like there was no safe place to go. 

And then it was Yellowknife’s turn. The same fire that had forced Behchokǫ̀’s evacuation in July was still going strong, and now it was just a few kilometres from Yellowknife, threatening the only highway connecting the capital with the rest of Canada. Running along that highway is the single line that brings telecommunications into the territory: fires had already knocked out cell, landline and internet connections across most of the South Slave, and there was real fear the whole territory would go dark. 

It was hard enough getting thousands of people out of the South Slave. Yellowknife has over 20,000 residents. If that highway was lost, there would be no way out, and no way in for supplies. And so, on Wednesday, August 16, the government of the Northwest Territories issued the evacuation order for Yellowknife and the surrounding area. 

READ: How the wildfires are affecting our health

I was left managing one of the only public information lines. Getting information out in an emergency isn’t as simple as just slapping it on Facebook. There are a lot of moving parts, particularly when the crisis spans municipalities, Indigenous governments and multiple parts of the territorial government. Amid the flurry of decisions and plans being made behind the scenes, someone has to condense it all for the public. Being on the ground helps: you’re in the thick of it and you can physically hunt down people you need to wrest information from. 

By that point, the Fire Phone hadn’t stopped ringing for more than five minutes at a stretch. The other NWT Fire information officer on duty was handling the North Slave fires. I had the rest of the territory—all of the South Slave, but also the Beaufort Delta, Dehcho and Sahtu, all with their own fires of concern. I didn’t have time to pee, let alone think about taking hours, if not days, to get myself out of there. I was convinced I was going to stay. I waved goodbye as friend after friend hit the road. 

As everyone else evacuated, calls that normally would have gone to other government departments were all coming to me. Was the highway open? Where could people get an evacuation flight? What about hospital patients? What if you didn’t have enough money for gas? Would there be gas along the way? And the ever-present question: was it safe? I didn’t always have the answers, but the questions kept coming. Between me and my colleague, we were covering the entire territory. How could I leave?

READ: Canada in the year 2060

On Thursday, August 17, I got in a friend’s car they’d left behind for me and drove around the deserted city. It was a beautiful late summer day. I almost felt like I should be turning into my usual swimming spot on Long Lake. It was warm with just a bit of a cool breeze and a striking sunset brewing. The air wasn’t clean by any means, but it felt less smoky than it had in the weeks before. Most people had been told to drive out if they could, and evacuation flights would run until Friday. But by Thursday, it was eerily quiet. No one was walking their dogs. No cars in the parking lot at the grocery store. The neon McDonald’s sign was dark. There was no one in the park or in the playgrounds, and when I drove through neighbourhoods, there was no one barbecuing or sitting outside—not even a flicker of curtains in open windows. In a city that lives for summer, this was weird. Very weird. We have very long winters in Yellowknife, and when the weather is warm, people spend as much time outdoors as possible. The only people I saw were in uniform. It was surreal—a city braced for apocalypse but under a clear blue sky. 

At the highway turnoff, I was tempted to turn west, toward Behchokǫ̀ and the fire. It was just kilometres away, close enough to force everyone I knew to leave their homes, but I couldn’t smell even a wisp of smoke. Would this feel more normal if I saw the fire? Would that make it real? I didn’t know, so I turned east and went home through the silent streets.  

By the next morning, when I got up, gritty-eyed after too little sleep, it still didn’t feel real, but my brain was starting to buffer and skip as if it had a spotty internet connection. I told myself everything was fine and got to work blasting out updates on social media and the web, doing interviews with outlets across Canada and taking calls. Meanwhile, my own phone kept pinging with loved ones asking when I was leaving, was I alright, where was I, was I safe. I assured them everything was fine, and that I had a job to do here, but I could feel their patience dwindling, just as chunks of my own resolve were crumbling. 

READ: Big Idea: To fight wildfires, bring back preventative burns

My little leaning tower of calm fell over completely around 4 p.m. on Friday, August 18. I was sitting at my kitchen table listening to two of my dearest friends—who had already evacuated—first cajole, then convince and finally demand I leave. I was frozen with indecision—and possibly about to choke on a Juicy Jumbo. 

My friends got me unstuck. One walked me through the various options, from catching one of the last evacuation flights out to getting in the car driving myself and my cats 18 hours down a dark, unfamiliar highway on my own. The other very sternly told me she’d had enough of my shit and it was time to go. I still wasn’t sure. To placate my friends, I started shoving random items of clothing into a bag, “just in case,” while I called my family in Ontario in tears. I might be almost 40 but sometimes you still need your mom to tell you what to do. In this case, though, it was my sister. Her coup de grace was asking me what would happen to my two cats’ little lungs when the winds turned and our blue skies turned orange with smoke. 

I was going to leave because I could wear a mask but my cats couldn’t. I was going to leave so my friends and family didn’t worry about me. It made sense. I still felt like a coward. 

Sometimes, the biggest threat to public safety feels like information vacuums. People fill that silence with panic. When we’re scared, we want someone to tell us it’s safe—or it’s not. People want certainty because certainty is control. I wasn’t certain about anything. I didn’t have any more control than they did. What I did have was the thought that nothing any of us working on this evacuation did was going to be enough. And that, in one of those calls, or posts, or media spots, I was going to be wrong. And that was going to get someone hurt. 

But I could listen to their fears, their questions, and then try to get answers from the people in charge, who were often more focused on the logistics than on telling people what was going on. I couldn’t do much to fix anything: not when people cried, not when people yelled, not when one lady called twice a day for an entire week to berate me during each step of her evacuation journey because nothing we did was good enough or right. But I could be a calm voice on the phone, telling people I would try. I could give advice to the dad of five kids who didn’t know what to do. He called me on Thursday to tell me they’d made it out. When a mom called me absolutely panicked because her 20-something kid had stayed behind to help in Hay River, and she hadn’t heard from him in days, I could find her son. It took three days, but we got eyes on him. 

READ: Canada needs clean-air shelters—and quickly

Looking back, I realize the reason I couldn’t unstick myself and leave was because that knowledge of what was happening gave me a sense of security. You know that Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers? Being a helper meant I wasn’t someone who needed help. Or maybe it was even simpler, that forcing my voice into soothing tones, composing my face for a TV interview and pretending everything was Just Fine was building a little fortress around my own fear. I was going to fake it till I made it through this disaster, goddamn it. Going off duty was scary because it made me a regular person. And regular people could be hurt. 

By the time I boarded a school bus on my way to the evacuation flight that Friday night, my two cats in their carriers squeezed in beside me, sobbing into the sleeve of my hoodie because I hadn’t thought to bring tissues, that mask had slipped. I was a normal person, and it sucked. I cried to the point that the big military dude had to ask me if I was okay. I mean, I wasn’t, but who was at that point?

I got on one of the last flights out of Yellowknife, on a military Hercules. Me, strapped into a jump seat made of stiff orange webbing, my tabby Allen on the ground beside me in his soft-sided carrier, braced between a support beam and my leg, his brother Bruce in his own carrier on the seat next to me. When the plane took off, it went straight up in the air. The Hercules isn’t built for comfort, and we felt every jolt, every bump. I was stretched across the seats trying to keep my cats from sliding around.     

I tried playing Tetris on the plane because a friend had told me it has been proven to help with trauma—but I couldn’t finish a game. All I could do was sit there, telling my cats to be calm.

I was luckier than many: I had gotten paid that day, so instead of going to an evacuation centre, I checked myself into a hotel. When I arrived at 3:30 a.m., tear-streaked and stunned, the staff were amazing: when they brought me a couple of bowls so I could feed the cats, they brought bottled water too, just in case my boys didn’t like the tap water. It wasn’t necessarily what they did, as how they did it: everyone we encountered was so kind, so worried for us, and patient when my brain was not working. 

Allen claimed the pillow next to my head that first night, and Bruce snuggled into my stomach, ready to be spooned like a 16-pound teddy bear. When I woke up, the brain fog was thick. I felt like I had maybe overreacted, that I’d been scared for nothing. But each piece of clothing I pulled out of my bag smelled of wildfire smoke, reminding me of what I’d fled. 

I booked myself a Westjet flight to Ontario, where my family was waiting for me. For the next two days, until I flew out, I was a mess. I couldn’t even decide what I wanted to eat. All I wanted to do was stare at the wall.    

I flew to Ontario on Monday. On Tuesday I was back on duty. But now I was sitting on my parents lawn, touching grass, breathing air that didn’t smell like fire. A friend of my mom’s sent me incredibly strong weed cookies and I watched four seasons of The Nanny with my family. My mom made me mac and cheese and a vendor at the local market sent peach preserves for me.

I bought a ukulele because it felt like something that had nothing to do with my job. I learned “Ring of Fire” and found that funny. I was struggling to concentrate: anything more intense than a TikTok video was absolutely impossible. But work, I could do. By now, it was less a constant deluge of emergency and more a regular set of tasks: I had to get this update out and attend that meeting and prepare for this interview, and at 4 p.m I’d have a little cry before it was time for dinner and the evening press conference. There was a rhythm to it while we were all waiting: to hear if our homes survived, when we could go back, and what we’d be going back to. In a way, I was lucky I could work—it meant I could do something. It was less a selfless desire to serve and more self-preservation. I had a task. Little by little, the fog started to shift. 

We had some close calls: fires came within metres of some communities, dire weather predictions came and went. The focus of the emergency response shifted away from disaster aversion and on to helping evacuees. Not everyone had family to go to, and there was a ton of work to do to keep thousands of people housed, fed and safe far from home. 

By Labour Day weekend, the fire outside of Yellowknife had been downgraded to “being held.” That didn’t mean it was out: it was too big and too hot for that. It meant that unless conditions changed, we were pretty sure the fire was going to stay within the boundaries we’d established. And so, the city of Yellowknife announced that people could return starting September 6.

When it was time to go home, after 35 days on shift, that gut-twisting fear came back. I knew too much and too little: I knew enough to be terrified that this was too early, that the highway through the South Slave up to Yellowknife was still unsafe and threatened by winds like the ones that had sent us all out of the territory in the first place. But I didn’t know what I’d be coming home to. 

READ: What it was like to fight a colossal East Coast wildfire

This time, the trip wasn’t as dramatic. Allen turned out to be a good traveller, and Bruce was chill as long as he was offered drugs. I’d acquired a large dog crate, and the two of them could ride together in the hold while I watched Abbott Elementary on my cellphone. There aren’t any direct flights from Toronto to Yellowknife, so we spent the night in Calgary. And that’s where the full weight of how alone and scared I was came back like a boulder: sitting in that hotel room, I called my mom and burst into tears. I’ve travelled a lot, and travelled on my own. Why was an overnight in Calgary so overwhelming? 

My friends who got me unstuck met me at the airport with Starbucks and drove me home. I’d been making jokes about how once we all returned we’d sit in my living room and weep openly. Now it wasn’t a joke. 

Walking into my apartment was like walking into a time capsule. There was the space where my laptop had sat on my kitchen table, surrounded by a mug smeared with dried remnants of coffee, balled-up tissues and notes scribbled on scrap paper. A pair of beaded earrings I had thrown on the counter—I’d been wearing my best Northern jewelry for my television interviews. On my kitchen counter was a pool of liquid that at one point may have been a nectarine. In my fridge, horrors awaited: I was unaware pineapple could grow so much mould in three weeks. 

But I was safe, though beset by fruit flies. My loved ones were all safe. Unlike a lot of communities in the territory, we hadn’t lost our homes. The city is different—surrounded now by deep fire breaks, clear cut and scooped out down to the bedrock, built while we were all gone by the crews that remained. Wildfires can get into the root systems and overwinter, coming back to life when the snow melts. Crews who had stayed behind had spent days working with big equipment and eventually hand tools, crawling over the rough terrain to keep the fire contained. 

That first week back felt more like an emergency than the week I left. The air was thick with smoke, and I woke up that first Saturday morning with a sky as dark as midnight two hours after sunrise. Smoke had rolled in overnight and the air felt polluted, heavy and sickly orange. I know what it’s like now to be afraid to breathe the air, to see particulates so large they float like dust on the breeze. When it’s smoky, even a mask doesn’t help. It gets into your throat, your nose, drying out your mouth with every breath. Ash can fall like snow, and there’s this super fine dust that gets on everything, even through sealed windows. If the wind is just right, you may even have falling embers. It makes you look at every garden, every tree break, every ditch full of grass as a potential fire hazard.  It wasn’t until two days later that I finally got a whiff of cool, clear autumn air. The winds shifted, and we got a brief respite—blue skies and air that smells like moist earth and fall leaves—not like the environment is trying to kill us all. 

We’re all a little broken. There’s solidarity in that, a sense of peace that everyone you see is also a little fuzzy, a little slow, and needs a little softness. Under all this it’s still Yellowknife. I’ve never been prouder of this community. 

READ: We rode a grief bus back to our burned-down home

We cannot go back to before. That might be a good thing. Why do we only have one highway into this territory? Why do we not have redundancies built into our telecommunications so it’s more than a single line running alongside the highway? We got extremely lucky this time that no one was killed on that highway with no way to call for help. Yes, we are remote, but we are still part of Canada. One tiny, vulnerable highway isn’t good enough. Communities lacking access to resources and supplies isn’t good enough, and telling northerners, especially Indigenous northerners, that if they want more services, they should live somewhere less remote is not good enough.

More than the infrastructure needs though, we need action on climate change. Not in a don’t-litter, save-the-turtles individual campaign way: we need the industries creating the devastation that is robbing us of our climate held to account. 

For the last few weeks, the whole of Canada watched as we burned. At one point earlier this summer, the only part of Canada not on fire was Nunavut—and they don’t have any trees. Things have to change. The N.W.T. is the canary in the coal mine. Wildfires are never not going to be a thing in the N.W.T., but in the last few years, the frequency and the intensity have gotten worse. No one can deny our weather is getting more and more extreme. 

Climate change is here, climate change is real, and the Arctic has been screaming about it for years. It’s time the rest of Canada listens. There are things we can all do, now. If we don’t, this kind of summer will become every summer.