Canada fires: Yellowknife residents leave town, new evacuations in British Columbia

  • New fires trigger evacuation orders in Kelowna
  • 2,400 West Kelowna properties were vacated
  • Prime Minister says ‘difficult days ahead’

WEST KELONA, British Columbia, Aug. 18 (Reuters) – Canada’s western province of British Columbia declared a state of emergency on Friday as firefighters battled a wildfire raging in the hills and mountains above the town of West Kelowna, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people.

West Kelowna, population 36,000, is located 300 kilometers (180 miles) east of Vancouver. Evacuations also took place in neighboring North Kelowna, a city of about 150,000 residents that also sits on Okanagan Lake.

Flames and smoke were visible from west Kelowna, and smoke filled the valley surrounding the lake. Earlier, the airspace in the region was closed to make room for water bombers.

“We are facing the worst wildfire season in the history of our province,” British Columbia Premier David Ibe told reporters when he made the announcement. “This unprecedented situation came to a head this evening. In just the past 24 hours, the situation has developed and deteriorated very rapidly.”

The county has gone from about 4,500 people under an eviction order to about 15,000 people in the past 24 hours. An additional 20,000 people are on standby for evacuation.

“The situation is unpredictable at the moment and there are definitely difficult days ahead,” Ibe said.

More than 2,400 properties were earlier evacuated in West Kelowna, officials said, and several structures were destroyed overnight.

“We fought very hard last night to protect our community,” West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Prolund told reporters earlier. “Night turned into day because of the orange glow of clouds and fire.”

The breadth of fires and disruption to life and the land underscores the intensity of Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season this year, with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country.

The regional fire service said that the huge fire that threatened the city of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, 1,425 kilometers to the northeast, made little progress on Friday, due to the success of extinguishing the fires.

However, strong winds are still blowing fire towards the city, and it could reach the outskirts by the end of the week. The fire service said “critical and difficult days” lay ahead.

The fire is located about 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of the city. Fires were burning on both sides of the only highway outside the city, which remained open.

“There are fires burning on both sides of the road… It’s a very surreal experience,” said Brent Saulnier, who was visiting him.

Environment and Communities Minister Shane Thompson told reporters that by Friday evening, some 19,000 of the city’s 20,000 residents had been evacuated.

“Some choose to take refuge in place. If you are still in Yellowknife and are not essential to emergency response, please evacuate,” Thompson said.

“There is a real possibility that highways and the airport will be affected by these fires.”

Experts say climate change has exacerbated the problem of wildfires. Officials said drought and high temperatures contributed to the number and intensity of this year’s fires. Much of Canada experienced abnormally dry conditions.

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Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Timon Johnson. Additional reporting by Chris Helgren, David Leungren, Ismail Shakeel and Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Written by Denny Thomas, David Leungren, and Steve Scherer; Editing by Sharon Singleton, Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Otis, Josie Kao, Kim Coghill and Sonali Paul

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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