Residents flee as western Canada fires spark new evacuations

Fires expected to reach outskirts of Yellowknife on Saturday.

YELLOWKNIFE: Residents from the remote northern Canadian city of Yellowknife scrambled to get out of town before flames blocked their exit on Friday, while another wildfire in the western province of British Columbia prompted new evacuation orders.

A state of emergency was declared early on Friday in Kelowna, a city some 300 kilometres (180 miles) east of Vancouver with a population of about 150,000. The Pacific province said the next 24 to 48 hours could be the most difficult.

Some of the hills around the city blazed in the predawn light after wildfires that had been burning since Tuesday jumped Lake Okanagan and spread into parts of Kelowna.

“Residents under Evacuation Alert are advised to be ready to leave their home at a moment’s notice,” the city said in a statement. More than 2,400 properties were being evacuated, officials said.

The expanse of fires and disruption to life and land underscore the severity of this year’s worst-on-record Canadian wildfire season, with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country. 

Some 885 miles (1,425 km) to the northeast, the massive blaze threatening Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’ capital city, made little progress on Thursday, but changing winds meant it could reach the outskirts by the weekend, said Mike Westwick, the territories’ fire information officer.

“The next two days are absolutely critical and will be some of the most challenging of the season,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) early on Friday. 

“We’re going to be putting everything we have into slowing that progression down. We’re going to be throwing aircraft at it, and when it’s safe, we’re going to be throwing people at it,” Westwick said.

The fire is about 15 km (9 miles) northwest of the city, but changing winds are expected to drive it closer. Fires have been burning on either side of the only highway out of town, but it remained open.

“Leaving Yellowknife, you’re driving into the smoke,” said Brent Saulnier, who had been visiting the city from neighboring Alberta. “It is on fire on both sides of the road. … It’s a very surreal experience.”

Many still must leave the city of around 20,000 with the deadline for evacuation set at noon local time (1800 GMT).

“The noon deadline doesn’t mean that the highway closes at noon,” Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said in an interview with CBC. “We’re just really encouraging folks to go as soon as possible. The highway will continue to be open as long as it’s safe.”

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