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Wildfire fight switches from defence to offence near Yellowknife

Teams putting out fire right on perimeter as fight continues near capital of Northwest Territories
A wildfire burns south of Enterprise, N.W.T., Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Firefighters battling a wildfire near the capital of the Northwest Territories shifted from defence to offence Monday after a weekend of cooler temperatures, favourable winds and some rain.

“We’re in a position to move to direct attack on that fire,” N.W.T. fire information officer Mike Westwick said Monday.

Until now, firefighters had mostly focused on trying to stop the spread or reduce the intensity of the fire near Yellowknife. That means building fire lines to rob the fire of fuel or water-bombing it from the air to cool it off.

“A lot of the tactics we’ve been using have been more indirect,” he said. “In this case, we’d be looking at putting out fire right on the perimeter, which is more of an offensive strategy.”

Flames remained about 15 kilometres from Yellowknife, whose 20,000 people were largely evacuated by road and air. Most evacuees were staying in Alberta communities, while about 3,000 were flown to Manitoba.

Westwick said nearly five millimetres of rain over the weekend helped prevent the fire’s spread while swirling winds tended to push the fire back on itself.

More rain was expected but would likely bring with it lightning strikes, which could spark up more fires.

“This is all pretty good news, except for the lightning,” said Westwick.

Still, he warned warmer temperatures were on the way.

“Everything’s unpredictable.”

Fires are much closer to other communities that have been evacuated. One is about eight kilometres away from Hay River, a town of about 3,500 people on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. Another is about four kilometres from Fort Smith, a community of 2,500 people along the Alberta-N.W.T. boundary.

Those towns, which didn’t get Yellowknife’s rain, are facing a tough week, said Westwick.

“We’ve got even hotter temperatures coming for those areas. There’s going to be some challenging firefighting to come.”

Extensive fire breaks and sprinkler systems have been installed around those communities.

Westwick said almost 600 firefighters are in the field, backed up by dozens of helicopters, air tankers and pieces of heavy equipment.

The City of Calgary said 13 of its firefighters were flown Monday to Yellowknife to help. Two fire trucks and other fire department vehicles were also sent north Sunday.

Edmonton also sent four fire trucks and two support vehicles, which were expected to arrive Monday.

More soldiers were also being deployed to Hay River.

Defence Minister Bill Blair announced the deployment Sunday, saying it would bring the number of soldiers helping the territory around Hay River and Yellowknife to about 400. Local members of Joint Task Force North were also assisting.

The Forces have also assigned two helicopters and a Twin Otter airplane to the firefighting efforts, while two Hercules airplanes remained stationed in Edmonton ready to help if needed.

Premier Caroline Cochrane said Sunday she had spoken with several federal ministers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, about how the territory needs financial assistance to deal with the fires and help evacuees.

Planning is underway in case the upcoming school year is disrupted, Cochrane added.

READ ALSO: Another company of soldiers deployed to N.W.T to help with wildfire fight