The capital of Canada's Northwest Territories was virtually deserted after nearly all the residents of the city of just over 20,000 fled as a huge wildfire burned nearby.
To the south, in British Columbia, thousands more people were told to leave their homes while firefighters battled a growing fire that set homes ablaze. British Columbia Premier David Eby declared a provincewide state of emergency in response to unprecedented wildfires Friday night. Evacuation orders in B.C. expanded from 4,000 houses to about 15,000 by nightfall.
Officials in the Northwest Territories said Friday evening that about 19,000 people left Yellowknife in less than 48 hours, with about 15,000 driving out in convoys and 3,800 leaving on emergency flights.
“I described today as another marathon sprint,” Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said. “It’s draining and, unfortunately, it’s not letting up yet.”
About 2,600 people were still in the city — 1,000 of them essential workers, authorities said.
Shane Thompson, the territory’s minister of environment and climate change, said that the wildfire situation remained critical and that the nonemergency personnel who stayed were endangering themselves and others. “Please get out now,” he said.
Streets were nearly empty, and stores shuttered. “It’s a ghost town,” said Kieron Testart, who was going door to door in the nearby First Nation communities of Dettah and NDilo to check on people.
A grocery store and a pharmacy remained open Friday but were expected to close. The last gas station still operating shut down in the afternoon. One bar was still open, drawing exhausted workers at the end of long shifts.
“It’s kind of like having a pint at the end of the world,” Testart said.
Cooler temperatures and higher humidity helped firefighters keep the wildfire from advancing Friday, holding it 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of the city’s outskirts, fire information officer Mike Westwick said.
“For the first time in a while, we got a little bit of help from [the] weather,” he said.
But he warned that emergency officials still fear weather conditions could change and propel the fire — one of hundreds raging in the territory — to the city limits.
Eleven air tankers bombed water onto the flames, and another plane dropped fire retardant. A 10-kilometer (6-mile) fire line was dug, and firefighters deployed 20 kilometers (12 miles) of hose and a plethora of pumps in the fight to keep the fire at bay.
It is “the most extensive heavy water operation we’ve ever seen in the territory,” Westwick said.
The fire, caused by lightning more than a month ago, is about 1,670 square kilometers (644 square miles) and “not going away anytime soon,” Westwick said. He said the blaze had jumped three different containment lines, fueled by dry weather and dense forests.
The Scene in British Columbia
Hundreds of kilometers south of Yellowknife, homes burned in West Kelowna, British Columbia, a city of about 38,000, after a wildfire grew “exponentially worse” than expected overnight, officials said.
“We are in for an extremely challenging situation in the days ahead,” B.C. Premier Eby said at a news conference Friday evening.
He said the decree would give authorities a number of legal tools, including the power to prevent people from traveling into dangerous areas and ensure access to accommodations for evacuees and heavy equipment for fighting the fires.
Officials in West Kelowna already ordered people to evacuate 2,400 properties and alerted an additional 4,800 properties to be ready to leave. The B.C. Wildfire Service said the fire stretched over 68 square kilometers (26 square miles).
No casualties had been reported, but some first responders became trapped while rescuing people who failed to evacuate, said Jason Brolund, chief of the West Kelowna fire department.
“There were a number of risks taken to save lives and property last night,” Brolund said at a news conference Friday, describing how first responders had to rescue people who jumped into a lake to avoid the flames. “It didn’t have to be that way.”
Bowinn Ma, the province’s minister of emergency management, said at a news briefing Friday afternoon that “we are still faced with great challenges.”
“I was deeply horrified to witness the distressing images emerging from West Kelowna,” she said. “The past 24 hours have been incredibly challenging for the people across the province."
Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the United States — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 137,000 square kilometers (53,000 square miles) from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.