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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Residents heeded warnings to evacuate the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as a major wildfire raged outside the city of 20,000 on Friday, while firefighters battled a growing blaze that has set homes ablaze in the British Columbia city.
Thousands of people in Yellowknife have walked hundreds of miles to safety, with authorities directing motorists through fire zones, while others waited in long lines for emergency flights as Canada’s worst ever fire season showed no signs of abating.
The carriers flew missions to keep open the only way out of Yellowknife. Meanwhile, a network of fire guards, sprinklers, and water cannons has been set up to try to protect the city from the fire.
Fire information officer Mike Westwick told The Associated Press by phone Friday night that the fire had not progressed Friday and was still about 9 miles northwest of the city, in part because cooler temperatures reduced fire activity and removed some of the smoke, allowing tankers to Air to fly safely and drop fire.
However, Westwick warned that “we have the wrong kind of wind” in the forecast – gale and from the west-northwest – and no rain.
More than 19,000 people have left Yellowknife in less than 48 hours, said Shane Thompson, the territory’s environment and natural resources minister. About 15,000 went by car and 3,800 flew.
“This is an amazing achievement to safely evacuate so many people,” he said.
The fire, caused by lightning more than a month ago, is about 644 square miles in size and “isn’t going away any time soon,” Westwick said, adding that the fire has jumped three different containment lines fueled by dry weather and dense forests.
This is a remarkable feat for evacuating so many people safely.
– Shane Thompson
Gas stations that still had fuel were open Friday, though the city was nearly empty, with a grocery store, pharmacy and pub still open.
“It’s kind of like getting a pint at the end of the world,” said Kieron Testart, who goes door-to-door in the nearby First Nation communities of Dettah and NDilo to check on people. Indigenous communities have been hit hard by the bushfires, which threaten important cultural activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering of native plants.
Hundreds of miles south of Yellowknife, homes are burning in West Kelowna, British Columbia, a city of about 38,000 residents, after a wildfire grew “significantly worse” than expected last night, the fire chief said.
Chief Minister David Ibe declared a state of emergency in the province due to the rapidly developing bushfires.
“We are in a very difficult situation in the coming days,” Ibe told a news conference on Friday evening.
He said the decree would give authorities a number of legal tools, including the power to stop people from traveling to dangerous areas and to ensure access to accommodation for evacuees and heavy firefighting equipment.
West Kelowna residents have already been ordered to vacate 2,400 properties, while an additional 4,800 properties were on evacuation alert. The BC Wildfire Service said the fire had grown six times its size overnight and spread over an area of more than 26 square miles.
West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Prolund said some first responders became trapped while rescuing people who failed to evacuate, and said residents faced another “scary night.” There were no known loss of life.
“There were a number of risks involved to save lives and property last night,” Prolund said at a news conference, describing how first responders had to rescue people who jumped into a lake to avoid the flames. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
“We still face great challenges,” Bowen Ma, the provincial emergency management minister, said at a press conference Friday afternoon.
“I was absolutely horrified to see the heartbreaking images coming out of West Kelowna,” she said. “The past 24 hours have been very difficult for people across the county.”
In Yellowknife, emergency officials were concerned that conditions might change and push the fire — one of hundreds burning in the territory — to the city limits.
Mayor Rebecca Alte said she understands the emotional ups and downs the city’s residents are going through.
“Unfortunately, the journey is not over yet,” she said. “The fire keeps getting closer and it will be hard to be uncertain about when you can come back.”
Alice Lisky left Yellowknife by road with her six children earlier this week because the air quality was so bad. She was worried if so many people could flee the city in such a short time.
Not only that, said she, but when we return, what will there be for us?
Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — choking off smoke in parts of the United States — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 53,000 square miles from one end of Canada to the other, according to Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.
As of Friday morning, more than 1,000 wildfires were burning across the country, more than half of which were out of control.
About 6,800 people in eight other communities in the Northwest Territories had already evacuated their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, which was largely destroyed. Officials said that all survived.
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