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A bittersweet reunion: How wildfires drove my Yellowknife friends and neighbours into the arms of my new home

Two days after the deadline to leave Yellowknife by air or by road, 50 to 60 people, and a few dogs, showed up at our house for an evacuees’ BBQ. Some came through the door ready for a cold beverage and a laugh; others were road weary, needing quiet connection and a deep rest. Everybody got a cob of Taber corn.

It’s been a wild week to be a former Yellowknifer living in Calgary. An unexpected and forced integration of my former and current hometowns. 

I lived in Yellowknife for 16 years until this past winter. I hosted the CBC morning radio show for the Northwest Territories for the last decade. In that time, I met and talked with thousands of Northerners. Now, suddenly, a bunch of those people are here in Calgary.

It’s an odd thing, feeling left out of a natural disaster. In the days before a fire burned close enough to Yellowknife to trigger the evacuation, communities on the south side of Great Slave Lake were first to be displaced by wildfires. Brutally, the small but mighty community of Enterprise burned almost completely

People standing around in a backyard during a summer barbecue.
Eyeopener host Loren McGinnis hosted a barbecue at his home for friends who were evacuated from the North due to the threat of wildfires. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Seeing what happened in Enterprise and watching people from Fort Smith, Hay River and Yellowknife deal with these fires had me longing to be on the Northern radio airwaves. In a decade, I was on the radio for a number of fires and floods, tragedies and recoveries. It felt hard to be away from all that and unable to help.

That was until the full evacuation of Yellowknife got underway, which included staff from CBC North. I was asked to ride shotgun with another CBC North alumnus, Judy Aldous. Over the course of two days we hosted five hours of call-in radio that was broadcast to all of the Northwest Territories and Alberta. People called to say where they were, ask where they should go, and to share their stories of escape. 

William Greenland called in. He’s a musician, storyteller, broadcaster known to many Northerners up and down the Mackenzie Valley. He was in his truck on the side of the road just before he hit the highway to leave Yellowknife. He reminded people to take care of themselves, he shared the comforting news that there was at least a light rain falling on the roof of his truck, and he played a prayer song on his traditional flute. Northern call-in radio! We did our best to give critical evacuation information, but a big part of those broadcasts was using the radio to connect with each other through a difficult time.

No doubt, some tough days lie ahead. The evacuation was not easy, but people did get out. Now they wait and wonder. Many people are staying in tight quarters, cots, spare bedrooms, hotel rooms with family, pets, and not much to do. 

People line up in a parking lot.
People without vehicles line up to register for a flight to Calgary in Yellowknife on Thursday, August 17, 2023. (Bill Braden/the Canadian Press)

I’ve been stopping by hotels where Northerners are staying to check in with people. I see the full range, from fellowship and taking care of each other to disorientation and personal chaos. 

On one stop to interview a Northerner who initially left Yellowknife to stay with family in Kelowna and then had to pick up again to get away from B.C.’s wildfires, I encountered an elderly evacuee who was confused and could not find his wife or his way back to his room. 

After the interview, I ran into some people that I know live rough and struggle with addiction on the streets of Yellowknife. They were arguing in the parking lot over a broken cell phone and wondering where to go. 

I also talked to an old-timer from Yellowknife who could hardly walk 10 feet at his hotel for all the people stopping to greet him and make sure he had everything he needed. He told me that under the circumstances of this stressful collective experience, people were especially friendly, giving him hugs and kisses. And that was welcome, he told me with a wide smile.

A white sign reads "Services for evacuees."
Wildfires in Yellowknife forced thousands of Northerners to retreat to evacuation centres throughout Alberta, including Calgary. CBC Radio host Loren McGinnis writes that he’s been impressed by the response of Calgarians. (Tom Ross/CBC)

Calgary’s response to all of this — to the thousands of people showing up with both basic and profound needs — has shown me something about my new home, too. The emergency response here has a kindness and efficiency and a rumbling horsepower to it that is so formidable. From the professionals to the volunteers, I have seen a master demonstration of Calgary’s spirit of get up and go. That must be due to Calgary’s own experience of natural disaster, the flood of 2013. People here have experience and empathy that is hard-earned, focused and incredibly effective.

For that I am grateful. And for being able to play a role on the radio and otherwise supporting Northern friends and strangers. 

Before this week, there was a strange delta between my life in the North and my life in Calgary. One chapter had ended so that another could start. But this has been a week of putting those things together. It has deepened my relationship with both places. I am sorry that Northerners have had to flee their homes. But since they did, I’m sure glad so many came to Calgary. With a foot in each place, I say both welcome and thanks. 

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