(Reuters) – Canadian firefighters battled on Thursday to prevent wildfires from reaching the northern city of Yellowknife, where all of its 20,000 residents are leaving by car and plane after an evacuation order was announced.
Water bombers flew low over Yellowknife as thick smoke enveloped the vast and sparsely populated capital of the Northwest Territories. Officials say the fire, which lies 16 km (10 miles) northeast of the city, could reach the suburbs by Saturday if there is no rain.
“There are very challenging days ahead – with two days of northwesterly to west-northwesterly winds on Friday and Saturday pushing the flames toward Yellowknife,” the regional fire service said in a statement on Facebook.
Hundreds of people lined up outside a local high school waiting to be taken to the airport for one of five evacuation flights planned for Thursday to the neighboring province of Alberta.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said he plans to convene a meeting of the Incident Response Group to discuss the fires later on Thursday. The group is composed of senior officials and ministers and meets in crisis situations.
This is the worst wildfire season in Canada with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country, including 265 in the Northwest Territories. Experts say climate change has exacerbated the problem of wildfires.
Shane Thompson, the provincial environment minister, said the evacuation order was issued late Wednesday to give people time to get out before the weather turns bad.
“The urgency is that the fires change drastically,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The conditions are in our favor at the moment, but that will change on Saturday. We will see the winds change and it will have an impact.” cbc).
He said that about 65% of the regions population of 46,000 would be evacuated.
The Northwest Territories have limited infrastructure and there is only one two-lane road out of Yellowknife into Alberta in the south.
Alberta has set up three official volley reception centers for those departing by road, but the nearest is located more than 1,100 kilometers from Yellowknife.
The deadline to leave Yellowknife is Friday noon local time (1800 GMT).
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alte said special teams have been cutting down trees near the city in an effort to prevent the flames from spreading. She told CBC that they also planned to use fire retardants while ensuring sprinkler systems worked.
“But the big, big focus is still on getting the fire going to slow the progression of the fire,” she said.
Canada’s two largest carriers said they were adding flights from Yellowknife and imposing fares in the wake of outrage on social media over some of the higher fares.
Some of the evacuees will be transferred to Calgary, Alberta. Calgary’s director of emergency management, Ian Bushell, said the city could accommodate and feed 5,000 people.
“We are ready to house them and help them as long as they need,” he said in a televised statement.
So far about 134,000 square kilometers (52,000 sq mi) of land have been burned in Canada, more than six times the 10-year average. Nearly 200,000 people have been forced to evacuate at some point this season.
In a social media post, the Northwest Territories Fire Service said a fire threatening Hay River, a community of about 3,000 people south on Great Slave Lake, was stopped overnight.
“The regions have never seen anything like this in terms of wildfires… It’s an unimaginable situation for many,” Mike Westwick, the districts fire information officer, told CBC.
The fires also affected industry and energy production. Diamond-producing De Beers said in a statement that its Gahchokoy mine, about 280 kilometers northeast of Yellowknife, continued to operate despite the evacuation of a number of employees from nearby communities.
In May 2016, a wildfire destroyed 10% of buildings in the energy-producing city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, forcing 90,000 residents to evacuate more than a million barrels per day of oil production.
In June 2021, 90% of buildings in Leyton Village, British Columbia, burned down, a day after it recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada.
Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa, Divya Rajagopal in Toronto, and Alison Lambert in Montreal. Editing by Devika Syamnath, David Gregorio, and Josie Kao
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