Aug 17 (Reuters) – Canadian fire crews battled on Thursday to prevent wildfires from reaching the northern city of Yellowknife, where 20,000 residents were evacuated by car and plane after an evacuation order was announced.
Water bombers flew low over Yellowknife as thick smoke shrouded the capital of the vast and sparsely populated Northwest Territories. Officials say the slow-moving fire is now 15 km (10 miles) northwest of the city and could reach the suburbs by Saturday if there is no rain.
“The toughest days are ahead – Friday and Saturday will see two days of northwesterly to west-northwesterly winds that will push the fire toward Yellowknife,” the regional fire service said in a statement on Facebook.
In the Pacific province of British Columbia, which has seen unusually intense blazes this year, officials warned residents to prepare for extreme fire conditions.
“This weather event is going to be the most challenging 24 to 48 hours of summer from a fire perspective,” Wildfire Service Director Cliff Chapman told reporters. “We expect significant growth and we expect our resources to be challenged from north to south.”
In Yellowknife, hundreds of people lined up outside a local high school to be taken to the airport for one of five evacuation flights scheduled for Thursday to neighboring Alberta.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened an incident response committee meeting Thursday to discuss the fires. The committee consists of senior officers and ministers and meets on critical occasions.
Defense Minister Bill Blair told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) after the meeting that the federal government was closely monitoring evacuations and was prepared to quickly airlift residents if land routes were cut.
This has been Canada’s worst wildfire season yet, with more than 1,000 fires burning across the country, including 265 in the Northwest Territories. Experts say climate change has exacerbated the wildfire problem.
Drought is a factor in the number and intensity of this year’s fires, officials say, with high temperatures exacerbating the situation. Much of Canada has experienced unusually dry conditions.
Shane Thompson, the regional environment minister, said the evacuation order was issued late Wednesday to give people time to evacuate before the weather turned bad.
“The urgency is that the fire is changing in intensity … conditions are in our favor right now, but that will change on Saturday,” he told the CBC.
In total, 65% of the region’s population of 46,000 will be evicted, he said.
The Northwest Territories has little infrastructure, and there is only one two-lane road from Yellowknife south into the province of Alberta.
Alberta has set up three official evacuation reception centers for those departing by road.
The deadline for residents to leave Yellowknife is noon Friday (1800 GMT).
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said special crews were clearing trees near the town in an effort to stop the fire from spreading. He told the CBC they plan to use fire retardant while making sure the sprinkler systems are working.
Canada’s two largest airlines said they were adding flights from Yellowknife and reining in fares following outrage on social media over some of the soaring fares.
Some of the evacuees will be flown to Calgary, Alberta. Ian Bushell, Calgary’s emergency management director, said the city could house and feed 5,000 people.
“We are ready to house them and help them as long as they need it,” he told a televised conference.
In a social media post, the Northwest Territories Fire Service said the fire threatening the Hay River, south of Great Slave Lake and home to about 3,000 people, had been contained overnight.
About 134,000 sq km (52,000 sq mi) of land has burned in Canada so far, more than six times the 10-year average. Nearly 200,000 people are forced to evacuate at some point this season.
“The territories have never seen anything like this in terms of wildfires … it’s an unimaginable situation for a lot of people,” Mike Westwick, the territories’ fire information officer, told the CBC.
Fires have also affected industry and energy production. Diamond producer De Beers said in a statement that its Gahcho Que mine, 280 km (170 miles) northeast of Yellowknife, continued to operate despite the evacuation of many workers from surrounding communities.
In May 2016, a massive fire in the northern energy-producing Alberta city of Fort McMurray destroyed 10% of structures, forced the evacuation of 90,000 residents and shut down production of more than a million barrels of oil per day.
In June 2021, 90% of the structures in the British Columbia village of Lytton burned, one day after Canada’s hottest temperature on record.
Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa, Divya Rajagopal in Toronto and Alison Lambert in Montreal; Editing by Devika Siamnath, David Gregorio, Josie Cao and Jonathan Otis
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