After 3 Weeks of Wildfire Exile, Yellowknife Residents Return Home

Twenty-two days after they were evacuated from the capital of the Northwest Territories in the face of a racing wildfire, the roughly 20,000 residents of Yellowknife began returning home on Wednesday to refrigerators filled with spoiled food to restart their lives in a city that averted disaster.

Cars and trucks bearing the territory’s distinctive polar-bear-shaped license plate took to the road after officials declared on Monday that it would most likely be safe to return on Wednesday.

The last highway roadblock impeding access was lifted at 11 a.m. local time, earlier than expected, and scheduled airline flights resumed on Wednesday.

The first two of a series of evacuee flights on chartered and military aircraft from the Alberta cities of Edmonton and Calgary, which both hosted thousands of Yellowknife residents, arrived on Wednesday. (To drive from Edmonton, the closest major city, takes about 24 hours.)

The fire that menaced Yellowknife and forced the Aug. 16 evacuation order continues to burn, and the entire territory remains under a state of emergency because of wildfires. But during the evacuation, firefighting crews managed to keep the fire about 15 kilometers, or about 10 miles, from the city’s western edges.

With Yellowknife largely empty, work crews, some of which included members of the Canadian Armed Forces, cleared large swaths of the exurban forest in strips about 100 meters wide and installed large sprinkler systems to create a fire break. Water dropped by aircraft further saturated the protective zone.

Officials deemed it safe to return in part because of cooler temperatures and favorable winds.

Essential workers, including store employees, were allowed to return earlier in the week, but Yellowknife residents were being warned to expect long lines and limited hours at many shops. They were told to bring food and supplies to last at least 72 hours.

Aaron Laborde, a pharmacist who kept Sutherland’s Drugs going as a one-person operation throughout the pandemic, said that his other two pharmacists and most of his staff returned on Monday to ready the store for the city’s return to normal.

Until Wednesday, he said, the city had been a ghost town, in part because many of the essential workers who remained were working 12 to 14 hours a day either fighting the fire or building the fire-break zones.

“The pharmacy is still super-quiet,” said Mr. Laborde, who was expecting his wife and two young children to return Wednesday night. “But around town, there’s more vehicles and stuff like that. It’s noticeable that there’s people again.”

Many of Mr. Laborde’s employees took laptops with them and, working remotely, transferred customers’ prescriptions to drugstores in the communities where they were riding out the evacuation orders. Now, he said, they will be busy reversing that effort.

Klaus Schoenne, who came back early from Edmonton to prepare his hardware store for reopening, said he had not seen any obvious fire or smoke damage.

“I don’t think it should have been an evacuation — I don’t think it was ever that bad,” he said. “There’s more smoke in Edmonton these days than there ever was in Yellowknife.”

For now, Mr. Schoenne’s Yellowknife True Hardware is open only by appointment to contractors, local governments and tradespeople.

He said the reappearance of people on the street Wednesday just as the blockade reopened — but before the first flights arrived — suggested that some had defied the evacuation orders and now felt it was safe to show themselves again.

While the return to Yellowknife, like the evacuation, generally proceeded smoothly, a transport-truck accident along the route temporarily cut electricity to parts of Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, including an area with one of the few gas stations. Fort Providence is a hamlet about 300 kilometers, or less than 200 miles, from Yellowknife.

Elsewhere in Canada, wildfires continued to burn in parts of British Columbia particularly near Kelowna, but only 405 properties were under evacuation orders, down from a peak of about 2,500. Nationwide, there are currently 1,056 active wildfires, with 697 of them classified as out of control. Most uncontrolled wildfires are likely to continue to burn until winter’s arrival.

While Mr. Schoenne, the hardware store owner, is concerned about the financial and emotional cost the evacuation brought to many residents, he said he welcomed the change from routine.

“It was actually the ideal holiday for me,” he said. “I was just totally tired of customers. But during this break, I got housecleaning done, I got up when I wanted, I watched movies, relaxed and didn’t have to deal with people. Like an old hermit.”