Thousands scramble to evacuate in Canada as over 200 ‘unprecedented’ wildfires burn

Aug 18, 2023, 4:14 PM

People line up in Yellowknife to register for an evacuation flight on August 17.
Mandatory Credit:	...

People line up in Yellowknife to register for an evacuation flight on August 17. Mandatory Credit: Bill Braden/The Canadian Press/AP

(CNN) — 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.

The 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.

At a Friday news briefing, Canadian leaders pledged no one would be left behind during the unprecedented evacuation from Yellowknife and getting residents out safely would continue through the weekend.

“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.

“We’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories,” Premier Caroline Cochrane said in a statement Wednesday night.

More than 1,000 people were flown out of Yellowknife on emergency flights Thursday, and close to an additional 2,000 seats are 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.”

‘Very worried about our house’

He and his family were still on the road Thursday morning and were headed to seek shelter in Edmonton, about 900 miles to the south.

“We are very exhausted right now. We’ve barely slept and are very worried about our house in Yellowknife and if we’ll still have a home,” Pineda said.

Fires in Canada have burned more than six times more land this year when compared to the 10-year annual average, according to data from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

There have been more fires in Canada this year than compared to the 10-year average, with a 128% difference. Yet the fires appear to be spreading much wider than before, and so far this year, more than 13 million hectares have been burned – an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The data, current as of August 9, show the 10-year average of area burned to date sits at just over 2 million hectares.

British Columbia evacuates thousands

Fire officials in Canada’s southwest province of British Columbia are bracing for “aggressive and unpredictable” fire conditions Friday as the region anticipates strong winds and dry lightning which will be compounded by existing drought conditions.

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.

“This weather event has the potential to be the most challenging 24 to 48 hours of the summer from a fire perspective,” Cliff Chapman, of the British Columbia Wildfire Service, said in a Thursday news conference. “We are expecting significant growth, and we are expecting our resources to be challenged.”

Chapman explained 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.

“Due to unpredictable fire behaviour, it is critical that all residents evacuate for their safety and the safety of first responders in the area,” the news release from Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said.

Video taken by resident Todd Ramsay shows a lake rimmed by large hills engulfed in a wall of fire.

“Absolutely devastating,” Ramsay said of the devastation in a Facebook post. “The fire jumped the lake and was right behind our house.”

Ramsay said he was eventually able to evacuate to safety.

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Thousands scramble to evacuate in Canada as over 200 ‘unprecedented’ wildfires burn