Thousands of residents are rush to evacuate the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as more than 200 fires rage across the region, leaving many facing dangerous road conditions or queuing for hours for desperately needed emergency flights.
The capital city of Yellowknife, home to some 20,000 people, and several other Northwest Territories communities have been ordered to evacuate as crews battle 236 active wildfires in the region. Yellowknife residents were urged to evacuate by noon Friday as a massive fire progressed toward the town and a major highway.
Hellfire in the Northwest Territories are among more than 1,000 fires burning across Canada as the country endures its worst fire season on record. Smoke from the fires has drifted into the US, bringing harmful pollution and worsening air quality.
A fire could reach the outskirts of Yellowknife this weekend, authorities said.
The Behchoko/Yellowknife fire saw little rain Thursday, which meant “almost no relief,” according to a facebook post from a government fire monitoring account.
“Critical and challenging days ahead, with two days of northwesterly to west-northwesterly winds on Friday and Saturday, which would push the fire toward Yellowknife,” the Thursday night post warned. Officials said such winds would push the fires where they “don’t want them to go.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with a group of senior government officials and ministers on Thursday to discuss the ongoing fires and their potential to affect infrastructure, including roads and telecommunications.
The Canadian Armed Forces is assisting with firefighting and airlift efforts in the Northwest Territories. The Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed several aircraft and helicopters to support regional emergency teams.
CAF’s first plane, a CC-130 J Hercules, made an evacuation flight on Thursday and transported 79 passengers to Edmonton, CAF said. Additional flights are scheduled for Friday.
“We are all tired of the word unprecedented, but there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories,” Prime Minister Caroline Cochrane said in a statement Wednesday night.
More than 1,000 people left Yellowknife on emergency flights Thursday, and about 2,000 additional seats are available Friday, territory officials said in an online update. Many hoping to fly on Thursday stood for hours in a slow, winding line only to be told they would have to try again on Friday, CNN partner CBC reports.
“We understand this is deeply frustrating for those who have been in line for several hours and will have to line up again tomorrow,” the territory update said. She added that people who are immunocompromised, have mobility issues or have other high-risk conditions were brought forward in line.
Officials encourage people to drive out, if possible, and carpool to reduce traffic and help those without vehicles.
“Evacuation flights should be used as a last resort for those who do not have the option to evacuate by road,” territory officials said.
But some leaving the area have been faced with thick smoke and flame-flanked roads. Yellowknife resident Ruoy Pineda told CNN he and his family struggled to navigate through thick fog after the evacuation order was announced Wednesday.
“Actually, we weren’t fully prepared,” Pineda said. “On the way, we were all scared by what we saw in front of us, but we kept reminding ourselves that it’s better to be outside than stranded.”
Pineda described the dangerous road conditions as he and others tried to flee the capital.
“On the road you could see the fire and we were fighting through the smoke,” he said. “The visibility on the road was very bad. We couldn’t even see if anyone was ahead of us.”
He and his family were still on the road Thursday morning, heading to seek refuge in Edmonton, about 900 miles to the south.
“We are very exhausted right now. We have hardly slept and we are very worried about our house in Yellowknife and if we will still have a home,” Pineda said.
Fires in Canada have burned more than six times as much land this year compared to the 10-year annual average, according to data from the Canadian Forest Fire Information System.
There have been more fires in Canada this year than compared to the 10-year average, a difference of 128%. However, the fires appear to be spreading much more than before, and more than 13 million acres have burned so far this year, an area larger than Pennsylvania.
The data, updated as of August 9, shows that the 10-year average area burned to date is just over 2 million hectares.
British Columbia evacuates thousands amid fire threat
Firefighters from the province of British Columbia, in southwestern Canada, prepare to “aggressive and unpredictable” fire conditions Friday as the region anticipates high winds and dry lightning that will be exacerbated by existing dry conditions.
British Columbia has more than 360 active fires – more than any other Canadian province, according to the Canadian Interagency Wildland Fire Center. Forecasted winds and lightning may cause fires to move and grow rapidly, officials i have warned.
“This weather event has the potential to be the most challenging 24 to 48 hours of summer from a fire perspective,” Cliff Chapman of the British Columbia Forest Fire Service said at a news conference Thursday. “We expect significant growth and we expect our resources to be challenged.”
Chapman explained that lightning has been the main cause of new fires.
Nearly 60 evacuation orders were in effect across the province Thursday, the British Columbia Forest Fire Service saying.
Among those displaced are residents of at least 4,800 properties ordered to evacuate in the West Kelowna area of the province Wednesday and Thursday as the McDougall Creek fire raged, local emergency officials announced.
A state of emergency has been declared in Kelowna as crews are fighting spot fires emanating from Central Okanagan Lake, stemming from the McDougall Creek fire, according to a Press release Friday.
“Due to the unpredictable behavior of the fire, it is critical that all residents evacuate for their safety and the safety of first responders in the area,” the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations news release said.
Video taken by resident Todd Ramsay shows a lake fringed by large hills engulfed in a wall of fire.
“Absolutely devastating,” Ramsay said of the devastation in a Facebook post. “The fire jumped the lake and was right behind our house.”
Ramsay said he was finally able to evacuate to safety.