(Reuters) – Canadian firefighters battled on Thursday to prevent wildfires from reaching the northern city of Yellowknife, where all of its 20,000 residents are leaving by car and plane after an evacuation order was announced.
Water bombers flew low over Yellowknife as thick smoke enveloped the vast and sparsely populated capital of the Northwest Territories. Officials say the blaze, which is slowly moving, is now located 15 km northwest of the city and could reach the suburbs by Saturday if there is no rain.
“There are very challenging days ahead – with two days of northwesterly to west-northwesterly winds on Friday and Saturday pushing the flames toward Yellowknife,” the regional fire service said in a statement on Facebook.
In the Pacific province of British Columbia, which has suffered unusually severe fires this year, officials have warned residents to prepare for severe fire conditions.
“This is probably the most challenging weather event in the 24 to 48 hours of the summer from a fire perspective,” Clive Chapman, director of the Forest Fire Service, told reporters. “We expect great growth and we expect to face our resources from north to south,” he added.
In Yellowknife, hundreds of people lined up outside a local high school waiting to be taken to the airport for one of five evacuation flights planned Thursday to the neighboring province of Alberta.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened a meeting of the Incident Response Group to discuss the fires on Thursday. The group is composed of senior officials and ministers and meets in crisis situations.
Defense Secretary Bill Blair, speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) after the meeting, said the federal government was closely monitoring evacuations and was prepared to quickly airlift residents if land routes were cut off.
This is the worst wildfire season in Canada with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country, including 265 in the Northwest Territories. Experts say climate change has exacerbated the problem of wildfires.
Officials say drought has been a contributing factor to the number and intensity of this year’s fires, with rising temperatures exacerbating the situation. Much of Canada experienced abnormally dry conditions.
Shane Thompson, the provincial environment minister, said the evacuation order was issued late Wednesday to give people time to get out before the weather turns bad.
“The urgency is that the fires are changing drastically,” he told CBC. “The conditions are in our favor now but that will change on Saturday.”
He said that about 65% of the regions population of 46,000 would be evacuated.
The Northwest Territories have limited infrastructure and there is only one two-lane road out of Yellowknife into Alberta in the south.
Alberta has set up three official reception centers for those leaving by road, but the closest is located more than 1,100 kilometers (680 mi) from Yellowknife.
The deadline to leave Yellowknife is Friday noon (1800 GMT).
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alte said special teams were cutting down trees near the city in an effort to prevent the flames from spreading. She told CBC that they also planned to use fire retardants while ensuring sprinkler systems worked.
Canada’s two largest airlines said they were adding flights from Yellowknife and challenging fares in the wake of outrage on social media over some of the higher fares.
Some of the evacuees will be transferred to Calgary, Alberta. Calgary’s director of emergency management, Ian Bushell, said the city could accommodate and feed 5,000 people.
“We are ready to house them and help them as long as they need,” he said in a televised statement.
In a social media post, the Northwest Territories Fire Service said a fire threatening Hay River, a community of about 3,000 people south on Great Slave Lake, was stopped overnight.
So far about 134,000 square kilometers (52,000 sq mi) of land have been burned in Canada, more than six times the 10-year average. Nearly 200,000 people have been forced to evacuate at some point this season.
“The regions have never seen anything like this in terms of wildfires… It’s an unimaginable situation for many,” Mike Westwick, the districts fire information officer, told CBC.
The fires also affected industry and energy production. Diamond-producing De Beers said in a statement that its Ghachököy mine, about 280 km (170 miles) northeast of Yellowknife, continued to operate despite the evacuation of a number of employees from nearby communities.
In May 2016, a wildfire destroyed 10% of buildings in the energy-producing city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, forcing 90,000 residents to evacuate more than a million barrels per day of oil production.
In June 2021, 90% of buildings burned in the village of Leyton, British Columbia, the day after it recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada.
Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa, Divya Rajagopal in Toronto, and Alison Lambert in Montreal. Editing by Devika Syamnath, David Gregorio, Josie Kao, and Jonathan Otis
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