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British Columbia wildfires intensify, doubling evacuations to over 35,000

British Columbia wildfires intensify, doubling evacuations to over 35,000

Sunday, August 20, 2023, 12:45 GMT+7
British Columbia wildfires intensify, doubling evacuations to over 35,000
The McDougall Creek wildfire burns next to houses in the Okanagan community of West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, August 19, 2023. Photo: Reuters

Forest fires in Canada's western province of British Columbia intensified on Saturday, with the number of people under evacuation orders doubling from a day earlier, as authorities warned of difficult days ahead.

The province declared a state of emergency on Friday to access temporary authoritative powers to tackle fire-related risks, as out-of-control fires ripped through interior British Columbia, partially shutting some sections of a key highway between the Pacific coast and the rest of western Canada, and destroying many properties.

"The current situation is grim," Premier Daniel Eby told reporters on Saturday, saying some 35,000 people were under an evacuation order, and a further 30,000 were under an evacuation alert.

Eby said the province is in dire need of shelter for evacuees and firefighters and ordered a ban on non-essential travel to make more temporary accommodation available. Officials also urged residents to avoid operating drones in the fire zone, saying it could impede firefighting efforts.

A view of fire close to highway near Sorrento, British Columbia, Canada, August 18, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from social media video. Photo: Reuters
A view of fire close to highway near Sorrento, British Columbia, Canada, August 18, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from social media video. Photo: Reuters

The fire is centered around Kelowna, a city some 300 kilometres (180 miles) east of Vancouver, with a population of about 150,000.

Forest fires are not uncommon in Canada, but the spread of blazes and disruption underscore the severity of its worst wildfire season yet.

About 140,000 square km (54,054 square miles) of land, roughly the size of New York state, have already burned, and government officials project the fire season could stretch into autumn due to widespread drought-like conditions in Canada.

B.C. had experienced strong winds and dry lightning in the past few days due to a cold mass of air interacting with hot air built-up in the sultry summer. That intensified existing forest fires and ignited new ones.

Deer cross a road in a neighborhood filled with smoke due to a nearby wildfire in the Glenmore Highlands area of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, August 19, 2023. Photo: Reuters
Deer cross a road in a neighborhood filled with smoke due to a nearby wildfire in the Glenmore Highlands area of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, August 19, 2023. Photo: Reuters

"We are still in some critically dry conditions, and are still expecting difficult days ahead," said Jerrad Schroeder, deputy fire centre manager at the Kamloops Fire Centre.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened a meeting of key ministers and senior officials on Saturday to discuss wildfires. The Incident Response Group, which met for the second time this week, agreed to make "additional resources available" to both British Columbia and the Northwest Territories (NWT).

Smoke from wildfires hangs low over Lake Okanagan in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada August 19, 2023. Photo: Reuters
Smoke from wildfires hangs low over Lake Okanagan in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada August 19, 2023. Photo: Reuters

Main east-west road under threat

A wildfire burning out of control in Yellowknife, the capital city of NWT, had triggered evacuations of almost all of its 20,000 residents this week. One patient died when he was being transferred out of Yellowknife, an NWT minister said on Saturday.

Currently, the fire is not expected to reach city limits by the end of the weekend, officials said, with some rain and cooler temperatures helping to slow its progress.

The TransCanada highway was closed near Chase, around 400 km northeast of Vancouver, and between Hope, 150 km east of Vancouver, and the village of Lytton.

Cars pass a line of vehicles waiting for fuel, after an evacuation order was declared due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Canada August 17, 2023. Photo: Reuters
Cars pass a line of vehicles waiting for fuel, after an evacuation order was declared due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Canada August 17, 2023. Photo: Reuters

The highway is the main east-west artery used by thousands of motorists and truckers heading to Vancouver, the country's busiest port.

Kip Lumquist, who works at a gift shop in Craigellachie, British Columbia, a tourist spot on the highway, said she saw a lot of devastation over the past week.

"It was crazy, we couldn't see the hills, the mountains, the trees, anything, probably (for) two and a half days," said Lumquist. "I drive a white vehicle, and when I walked out to get in my car... it's just black... It's devastating to the community."

Sarah Carr-Locke walks her dog while waiting for fuel in Fort Providence, after an evacuation order was declared due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada August 17, 2023. Photo: Reuters
Sarah Carr-Locke walks her dog while waiting for fuel in Fort Providence, after an evacuation order was declared due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada August 17, 2023. Photo: Reuters

By Friday, the fire in southern B.C. had grown more than a hundredfold in 24 hours and forced more than 2,400 properties to be evacuated.

The flames have destroyed several structures in West Kelowna and authorities have been warning that the province could potentially face the worst couple of days of the fire season this year.

B.C. currently accounts for over a third of Canada's 1,062 active fires.

Cars pass a line of vehicles waiting for fuel, after an evacuation order was declared due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Canada August 17, 2023. Photo: Reuters
Cars pass a line of vehicles waiting for fuel, after an evacuation order was declared due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Canada August 17, 2023. Photo: Reuters

Some 5,000 customers are also without electricity in interior of the province, the main utility said.

The fires have drained local resources and drawn in federal government assistance as well as support from 13 countries. At least four firefighters have died in the line of duty.

Reuters

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