Canadian bishop calls fire devastation ‘closest image to apocalyptic wasteland I have ever seen’

Canada wildfire An aerial view shows charred remains on the side of the road beside the highway in Enterprise, Northwest Territories, Canada, on Aug. 20, 2023. Enterprise and Hay River were put on evacuation orders prior to the city of Yellowknife. The town of Enterprise, Northwest Territories, was burned to the ground by forest fires. | Credit: ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Bishop Jon Hansen, CSSR, of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, was one of thousands of people forced to flee a wildfire near Yellowknife as hundreds of fires continue to sweep through the Northwest Territories and Western Canada.

Hansen shared the story of his journey from his diocese, which includes the Northwest Territories (NWT) and parts of Saskatchewan and Nunavut, in an email update to parishioners the day after he completed a 12-hour evacuation drive from Yellowknife to Grande Prairie, Alberta, to shelter with family. His email was reprinted in The B.C. Catholic, a weekly publication in British Columbia:

“I am one of the lucky evacuees who have family in Alberta so I am very comfortable staying in the home of my niece and her husband.

“That’s not the case for all who were forced to leave.

“As I drove, I saw many tents and campers for the entire length of my journey. There will also be many families in hotels and evacuation centers across Alberta and British Columbia. I gathered the quote below from one of our information sources,, a fantastic media source for up-to-the-minute information about the fires.

“‘Approximately 63% of the NWT population is currently under evacuation order if we use the most recent community population numbers provided by the NWT Bureau of Statistics. That’s about 28,904 residents, though this number doesn’t account for nonresidents such as tourists or people here on short work contracts whose home province is elsewhere and would also be evacuating the NWT right now.’

“Presently there are various levels of crisis in the NWT. A number of communities including Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, and Inuvik have fire at their doorsteps and we are just waiting to see what the weather will do to move the fires forward or to aid the firefighters and help hold the fires back. Other communities have already been breached including Behchoko (three homes lost) and Enterprise, which was, according to reports, about 90% wiped out. I drove through there yesterday and it was the closest image to an apocalyptic wasteland that I have ever seen. For some communities such as Hay River and Katlodeeche, this is the second time they have been evacuated this summer after having to do the same a year ago due to floods.

“On a brighter note, there is nothing like a crisis to bring out the best in humanity. There was a traffic stop at Big River outside of Fort Providence. This is the only place on the 700-kilometer [435-mile] stretch between Yellowknife and High Level where you can stop for gas. With more than 5,000 vehicles passing through a gas station with four pumps, you can imagine that it could have been a place of chaos, and there was some of that.

“However, the prevalent mood was very neighborly. People got out of their cars to stretch their legs and walk their dogs and spent time talking and laughing with one another. I was also surprised to see the many farm yards in northern Alberta that were freshly mowed and had big, hand-painted signs offering free camping to all those equipped with tents and RVs.

“The next few days are now just a matter of waiting to see what will happen next. All our staff and clergy are safe and accounted for, although they have been scattered to the wind by plane and by road. Keep the prayers coming as we ask for the miracle of rainfall in abundance for our parched land.”

This article was originally published in The B.C. Catholic on Aug. 19, 2023, and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

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