Thousands of residents have rushed to evacuate the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as more than 200 fires burn, leaving many to face dangerous road conditions or queue for hours for urgently needed emergency flights. Evacuation was also underway in British Columbia.
Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories – home to about 20,000 people – and several other Northwest Territories communities have been ordered to evacuate as a large fire crawls toward the town and a major highway as it battles 236 active wildfires.
More than 1,000 fires are burning across Canada, including inferno in the Northwest Territories, as the country posts its worst fire season on record. Smoke from fires drifts into the United States, bringing harmful pollution and worsening air quality.
As of Friday evening, the city’s mayor estimated that about 19,000 Yellowknife residents had been evacuated due to the threat of wildfires.
“The evacuation was a huge success,” Mayor Rebecca Alty said at a press conference Friday evening. “We’ve basically been able to evacuate the entire city now.”
The fire complex is about 15 km (9.3 miles) outside Yellowknife’s boundary and has not progressed much over the past two days, says Mike Westwick, bushfire information officer for the Northwest Territories.
“If it wasn’t for those successful days of suppression and a little help from the weather, this fire would be much closer now,” Westwick said.
“A couple of good days doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, so to speak,” he added. “We still have a long way to go here.”
A little rain is possible, but strong northwest and west-northwest winds could push the fire into the suburbs of Yellowknife by the end of the week, a report said. Facebook registration From Government Fire Watch account.
The Canadian government has committed “significant military assets” to aerial evacuation and firefighting efforts in the Northwest Territories, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference in Edmonton Friday night.
“We’re coordinating air evacuations, making sure we’re responding to all the needs of the community now, and we’ll be there in the months and years to come, watching people move forward safely. We’re rebuilding where there’s been terrible loss,” Trudeau said.
In a separate news conference, Canadian leaders pledged that no one would be left behind during the unprecedented evacuation from Yellowknife and that the safe evacuation of residents would continue through the weekend.
“We will continue to focus on helping the most vulnerable and stay as long as it takes,” Defense Minister Bill Blair said.
While most were encouraged to leave via the only road out of the community, 5,000 residents requested flights out of the city.
Smoke has been covering Yellowknife for weeks, but unpredictable winds and raging fires forced officials to order a full evacuation.
However, federal officials said they believe the majority of the community can continue to be protected from fire damage and are working to create firebreaks by removing trees and applying fire retardants.
In West Kelowna, officials confirmed several buildings were lost to the fire, including several homes. However, despite details of the harrowing rescue operations, there were no reports of casualties, officials said.
More than 29,500 people – approximately 65% of the population of the Northwest Territories – are currently under evacuation orders, according to a spokesperson for the Northwest Territories Cabinet.
The Canadian Armed Forces support firefighting and aviation efforts in the Northwest Territories. The Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed several aircraft and helicopters to support regional emergency teams.
CAF said the first CAF aircraft, a CC-130 J Hercules, conducted an evacuation flight Thursday and transported 79 passengers to Edmonton. Additional flights are scheduled for Friday.
Inbound and outbound commercial flights have been canceled at airports in the Northwest Territories due to forest fires. Commercial flights in and out of Yellowknife Airport will cease after the last flight departs on Friday evening, according to an update on the government website.
Evacuation flights will still be able to operate out of the airport, as well as medical evacuations, firefighting and military-related flights, the government site said.
More than 1,000 people were evacuated from Yellowknife on emergency flights Thursday, and an additional 2,000 seats were available Friday, regional officials said in an online update. Many hoping to fly out Thursday stood for hours in a winding, slow-moving line, only to be told to try again on Friday, CNN partner CBC reports.
“We understand that this is very frustrating for those who have queued for hours and will have to queue again tomorrow,” said the regional update. People who are immunocompromised, have mobility issues, or have other high-risk conditions are moved up the ranks.
Officials are encouraging people to drive if possible, slow down traffic, and carpool to help those without vehicles.
“Evacuation flights should be used as a last resort for those unwilling to evacuate by road,” regional officials said.
But some fleeing the area encountered roads engulfed in thick smoke and flames. Yellowknife resident Rui Pineda told CNN that he and his family struggled to navigate through heavy fog after the evacuation order was announced Wednesday.
“We’re not really fully prepared,” Pineda said. “On the road, we were all afraid of what we saw in front of us, but we were constantly reminded that it was better to be out than to be stuck.”
Pineda described dangerous road conditions as he and others tried to leave the capital.
“On the road you saw the fire and we were struggling because of the smoke,” he said. “Visibility on the road was very poor. We couldn’t even see if there was anyone in front of us.
He and his family were still on the road Thursday morning and headed for shelter in Edmonton, 900 miles south.
“We’re very tired right now. We haven’t slept yet and we’re very worried about our house in Yellowknife, if we still have a house,” Pineda said.
Fires in Canada this year have burned six times more than the 10-year average, according to data. Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.
Canada has had more fires this year than the 10-year average, a 128% difference. Still, the fires appear to be spreading more widely than ever, burning more than 13 million hectares so far this year — an area larger than Pennsylvania.
Current data as of August 9 shows that the 10-year average area burned to date is more than 2 million hectares.
British Columbia evacuates thousands
About 15,000 homes are under evacuation orders as wildfires continue to spread across British Columbia. The latest evacuation order was 4,000 on Friday.
Another 20,000 homes are under an evacuation alert, meaning residents must be ready to leave immediately if an order is issued, Emergency Management and Climate Preparedness Minister Povin Ma told a news conference Friday evening.
“As a result of this rapid deterioration, tonight we are declaring a provincial state of emergency to ensure rapid access to any tools needed to respond to this situation,” British Columbia Premier David Eby said.
Some fires have reached heights of 400 feet and are “moving faster than firefighting resources can be effectively deployed,” Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the BC Forest Fire Service, said Friday.
“There’s very little response tactics can do with these winds and that type of fire behavior,” Chapman said.
He said the McDougal Creek Fire near West Kelowna has experienced “significant growth” in the past 12 hours and is now more than 6,000 hectares.
Kelowna International Airport was closed to commercial flights to allow space for firefighting operations, according to a Press release From the airport.
More than British Columbia 360 active fire – more than any other Canadian province, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Forecast wind and lightning could cause the fire to move and grow quickly, officials said have warned. Lightning is the primary cause of new fires, Chapman said.
On Thursday, nearly 60 evacuation orders were in effect across the province The British Columbia Forest Fire Service said.
Among the evacuees were at least 4,800 residents of properties who were ordered to evacuate on Wednesday and Thursday as the McDougall Creek fire advanced in the province’s west Kelowna region, local emergency officials announced.
A state of emergency has been declared in Kelowna as crews battle the McDougal Creek Fire across Central Okanagan Lake. Press release Friday.
Video taken by resident Todd Ramsey shows a lake surrounded by large mountains engulfed in flames.
“Absolutely devastated,” Ramsey said of the disaster in a Facebook post. “The fire jumped into the lake and was behind our house.”
Ramsey said he was eventually able to get out safely.