“It’s like going off to war”: This man is helping evacuate fire-plagued Yellowknife

“Northerners are the toughest people on the planet, and we come together in a crisis”

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Heavy smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky in Yellowknife on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Angela Gzowski

A wide shot of a street in Yellowknife. The town is obscured by smoke.
Heavy smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky in Yellowknife on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. (Photograph by Angela Gzowski/The Canadian Press.)

The north is burning. Since early spring, forest fires have raged across the Northwest Territories. But in the last week, the flames reached the territory’s biggest population centres. On Wednesday, Yellowknife residents were ordered to leave within 36 hours as fires burned just kilometres from city limits and officials feared it might block the only road going in and out

Kieron Testart is director of economic development of Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and a former MLA who is running again in the upcoming territorial election. As an essential staffer, Testart is one of the few people left in Yellowknife. He is helping to ensure the safe evacuation of Yellowknives Dene First Nation and keeping essential services going for those who have sheltered in place. We spoke to Testart late on Thursday afternoon, almost 24 hours after the evacuation order was given by the territorial government.

Forest fires have been burning all summer in the Northwest Territories. Did you think they would threaten Yellowknife?

We’ve been through this before. There’s only one road into Yellowknife, and in 2014, that road was cut off by fires. People were quite anxious about that at the time, but we got through it. The fire got quite close, but it didn’t breach the community boundaries.

We knew this fire was bad, but I don’t think anyone thought it would get this close. When you’re imagining evacuating the capital, it just didn’t seem like it was a possibility.

A man wearing a brown jacket and checked shirt stands smiling in front of a forest
Kieron Testart has remained in Yellowknife to help provide essential services. (Photograph courtesy of Kieron Testart.)

Was there a day when you said to yourself, ‘This is really serious, I might have to consider evacuating’?

It was last Friday. That’s when reality hit—the fires were very close. We knew if the wind changed it was going to get bad. That was at the same time that Hay River, Enterprise, Fort Smith and K’atl’odeeche First Nation were being evacuated. That’s every major population centre in the southern part of the territory—it’s almost like all of southwestern Ontario having to leave. That was a wake-up call that we needed to get our ducks in order. My wife and I made a plan and packed some bags and we were thinking the worst could happen. But it was very surreal when we got the actual evacuation order.

What was your original evacuation plan?

We had planned to shelter in place, because the advice we were getting from the city was that Yellowknife was not at risk and that the city has very favourable geography for this type of event.

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As we got closer to the crisis, we decided that she was going to leave with our two young children on an evacuation flight Wednesday night. We didn’t want them to be exposed to the smoke or the fire. That was a tough decision to make—to separate. But that’s what we felt was the best decision. And when they couldn’t get on a plane quick enough, she got in our truck and took off down the highway. That was yesterday. She just crossed the border into Alberta and is on her way to Grand Prairie for the evening.

It’s almost like going off to war. You don’t know when you’re going to see each other again. There are real risks, but at the end of the day I have a job to do: get other people out safely. Once I knew my family was safe—my parents, my wife and kids, my sister and her kids—that allowed me to do my job a lot more easily. I’m an essential worker here at the First Nation. I’m going to keep doing that job until this crisis is over.

Did people in Yellowknives Dene First Nation wait for the evacuation order to start leaving?

Sixty people left voluntarily well before the order earlier this week. They packed up campers and trucks because they felt nervous. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall when the rest of us were a bit more hopeful—or naive. It was very surreal to see people leaving and think, that might be us in a couple of days. And it turns out it was.

A line of cars stretches out on a long road approaching a small lake
Vehicles line up for fuel at Fort Providence on the only road south from Yellowknife. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.)

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation have called this land their own since time immemorial. It’s very hard to leave it. This is a very difficult decision for them to make. But people have taken it seriously. There are people who are going to remain and shelter in place. We know who they are and we’re going to make sure they’re taken care of.

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When people left, were they trying to take as much of their lives as they could?

I think everyone expects that our firefighters are going to be able to beat this thing and save the city. Today was a great day for fire prevention. It’s been wet, it’s overcast, and the fire has not moved. So we’re very hopeful that these conditions will continue. The weather will be with us, the wind will be with us, the city will be saved, and people can return to their lives. That’s the expectation. I don’t think anyone’s given up hope.

Northerners are the toughest people on the planet, and we come together in a crisis. We never lose hope, especially when our home is involved.

What is it like helping the people who have chosen to shelter in place?

We’re keeping the community’s essential services going. Our public works team is amazing. They’re keeping the sewage tanks empty, the water tanks full and the lights on. We’re doing safety checks, house to house, twice a day, to make sure everyone’s safe. If we need to, if things get worse—and we remain hopeful that they won’t—we can get them out.

What is Yellowknife like? You must be one of the last people remaining.

It’s surreal. All my neighbours are gone now. The grocery stores are closed. The banks are closed. The gas stations are closing today. By tomorrow afternoon all non-essential services are going to stop. It’s a very strange time. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I hope that not many people have. But we’re hopeful this is going to be something we can get ahead of by the weekend and see some light at the end of the tunnel—that we can bring everyone back and get our city back.

About 150 people wait in line in front of a series of low buildings
People without vehicles line up to register for a flight to Calgary. (Photograph by Bill Braden/The Canadian Press.)

Is there a point when you will evacuate?

Yes. If there’s a risk of loss of life, we’re abandoning the city. The only people who will be left behind are the core firefighters and fire operations. We’ll go and we’ll take as many folks as we can with us to safety.

Is there anything you want to tell Canadians who are reading this, who are only seeing it on the news?

People have an image of what the Northwest Territories is in their minds: polar bears, northern lights, beluga whales. That’s all true. But the people who live here are the north, and right now we are being hit hard and hardest by climate change. These weather events are becoming more frequent, more catastrophic and harder to deal with. We need resources from Canada and the rest of the world to fight these effectively. With all eyes on us now, we are hoping that message is resonating with everyone from the Prime Minister to everyday Canadians in southern cities. We need better infrastructure and we need better resources to manage these issues. We need concerted efforts to keep people here in their communities and keep people safe. That requires a whole lot more than we’re currently getting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.