Captain Chad Blewett describes operating a special flight to evacuate Yellowknife

Throughout the summer, numerous Canadian provinces grappled with wildfires. Most recently, this perilous natural disaster endangered the lives of Yellowknife residents, the capital of the Northwest Territories. Air Canada orchestrated dedicated flights to facilitate the evacuation of the city’s populace. Captain Chad Blewett recounted his firsthand experience piloting an aircraft for this mission.

Fires at Yellowknife

Forests at Yellowknife ⓒ Daniel Case
Forests at Yellowknife ⓒ Daniel Case

Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories of Canada and has only 20,048 local residents, which is nearly half of all people living in the territory — 44,826. The Northwest Territories of Canada is the third-largest province of the country. As part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, these remote territories are surrounded by forests, mountains, Arctic tundra, and islands. Despite the vast Arctic landscape, this territory is abundantly covered by forests — about 18% of the Northwest Territories are classified as forest land. This is also the reason why wildfires are a threat to the territory; it’s difficult to control fires in such a large, unpopulated area.

Wildfires at Canada ⓒ Darryl Dyck
Wildfires at Canada ⓒ Darryl Dyck

During the year 2023, Canada has been affected by a series of wildfires with record intensity that began in March and intensified from June onward. Recently, one of the wildfires burning to the west of Yellowknife, which had already consumed approximately 165,000 hectares, started moving closer to the community and the main highway. On Friday, August 18, the official evacuation order was posted on the official website of the City of Yellowknife.

Special flight

Chad Blewett, an Air Canada pilot, described his experience operating a special flight to Yellowknife.

When he saw a flight to Yellowknife on the schedule, he immediately requested to switch from his original flight to Honolulu to the special flight to Yellowknife. Blewett still had relatives in the town, but his decision to get involved was also based on the fact that he had received his pilot training in Yellowknife, where he accumulated thousands of flying hours. He had experience flying Boeing 737 models in the area. The rescue team was assigned to the Boeing 737 Max 8, one of the larger aircraft in the Boeing 737 line, with a capacity to carry between 162 and 178 passengers.

The flight from Vancouver to Yellowknife was successful. Chad Blewett met his family inside the terminal after landing, but they didn’t depart until the next morning. The captain had to pilot the plane back.

However, the mission was far from over at that point. While flying back, one of the passengers recognized Captain Chad Blewett’s name and he encountered an old colleague from the local airline. She informed him that her husband had stayed behind to assist with the evacuation. The plane returned to safety, flying over the burning grounds. Perhaps nothing will describe this experience better than Chad Blewett’s own words:

“Flying directly over the fire on departure, and seeing how close it was to town, was very concerning,” Chad Blewett said. “It is pretty tough to see, you think it’s never going to happen to you or your family. But I knew that the first responders on the ground would do their best to protect the city, my hometown.”

“I am proud of my airline’s efforts to help, as these special flights were put in within 24 hours of the evacuation order,” Blewett continued. “It was an unforgettable experience, doing my small part to get friends, family, and everyone out safely during this difficult time.”

Despite the evacuation of Yellowknife’s residents and ongoing efforts to combat the fire, the situation is not yet under control. Recently, new problems have arisen from the aftermath of the wildfire: black bears have entered the city’s deserted streets.

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