Thousands of residents are rushing to evacuate the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as more than 200 fires burn, leaving many to face dangerous road conditions or stand in line for hours for desperately needed emergency flights. Evacuations were also under way in British Columbia.
The Northwest Territories capital Yellowknife – home to about 20,000 – and several other Northwest Territories communities have been ordered to evacuate as crews battle 236 active wildfires, and a massive fire creeps toward the city and a major highway.
The infernos 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 little rain was possible but strong northwest and west-northwest winds could push the fire to the outskirts of Yellowknife by the weekend, according to a Facebook post from a government fire-monitoring account.
The Canadian government has deployed “significant military assets” to assist with air evacuations and firefighting efforts in the Northwest Territories, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference in Edmonton on Friday night.
“We’re coordinating the air evacuations, we’re making sure that we’re there to respond to all the needs of community now and will be there in the coming months and years as we look to keep people safe moving forward, even as we rebuild in places where there are terrible losses,” Trudeau said.
“We’ll continue to focus on helping the most vulnerable and will be there for as long as it takes,” Defense Minister Bill Blair said.
While most were encouraged to leave via the only road out of the community, as many as 5,000 residents had requested flights out of the city.
Smoke continues to shroud Yellowknife, as it has for weeks, but an unpredictable wind and a raging fire, now about 10 miles from Yellowknife, forced officials to order a complete evacuation.
However, federal officials said they were confident they could continue to protect the majority of the community from fire damage and are working on building fire breaks by clearing trees and applying fire retardant.
In West Kelowna, officials confirmed several structures were lost in the fire, including many homes. However, officials said there were no reports of loss of life despite descriptions of harrowing rescues.
Military assisting with airlifts
The Canadian Armed Forces are assisting with firefighting and airlifting efforts in the Northwest Territories. The Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed several planes and helicopters to support regional emergency crews.
The first CAF aircraft, a CC-130 J Hercules, conducted an evacuation flight Thursday and transported 79 passengers to Edmonton, the CAF said. Additional flights are scheduled for Friday.
Incoming and outgoing commercial flights at airports in the Northwest Territories have been canceled because of the wildfires. Commercial flights in and out of Yellowknife Airport will stop 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 flown out of Yellowknife on emergency flights Thursday, and close to an additional 2,000 seats were available Friday, territory 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 they would need to try again on Friday, CNN partner CBC reports.
“We understand that this is deeply frustrating for those who have been in line for several hours and who will need to line up again tomorrow,” the territory update said. It added people who are immunocompromised, have mobility issues or have other high-risk conditions were moved up in the line.
Officials are encouraging people to leave by car, if possible, and carpool to reduce traffic and assist 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 driving out of the area have faced thick smoke and roadways flanked with flames. Yellowknife resident Ruoy Pineda told CNN he and his family struggled to navigate through the heavy haze after the evacuation order was announced Wednesday.
“We were not actually fully prepared,” Pineda said. “On the road, we were all scared of what we saw ahead of us, but we keep reminding ourselves it is better to be out 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 struggling because of the smoke,” he said. “The visibility on the road was very bad. We couldn’t even see if someone was ahead of us.”
British Columbia evacuates thousands
Approximately 15,000 homes are under an evacuation order in British Columbia as wildfires continues to rage. The latest evacuation order is up from 4,000 earlier in the day on Friday.
An additional 20,000 homes are under an evacuation alert, which means residents must be prepared to evacuate immediately if an order is issued, Bowinn Ma, minister of emergency management and climate readiness, said in a news conference Friday evening.
“Tonight as a result of this rapid deterioration, we are declaring a provincial state of emergency to ensure that we have rapid access to any tools that we may need to respond to this situation,” British Columbia Premier David Eby said.
Some fires have reached over 400 feet tall and are moving “faster than we can effectively put firefighting resources on them,” Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for BC Wildfire Service, said earlier on Friday
“There is very little that response tactics can do with these winds and that type of fire behavior,” Chapman said.
The McDougall Creek fire near West Kelowna has experienced “significant growth” in the past 12 hours and currently spans more than 6,000 hectares, he said.
Kelowna International Airport closed to commercial flights to allow space for fire fighting activity to take place, according to a news release from the airport.
British Columbia has more than 360 active fires – more than any other Canadian province, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. The forecast winds and lightning may cause fires to move and grow quickly, officials have warned. Chapman said that lightning has been the primary cause of new fires.
Nearly 60 evacuation orders were in effect across the province Thursday, the British Columbia Wildfire Service said.
Among the displaced are residents of at least 4,800 properties who were ordered to evacuate in the province’s West Kelowna area on Wednesday and Thursday as the McDougall Creek fire advanced, local emergency officials announced.
A state of emergency has been declared in Kelowna, as crews are combating spot fires coming from across the Central Okanagan Lake, stemming from the McDougall Creek fire, according to a news release Friday.