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Western Canada fires spark new evacuations as firefighters race flames in Yellowknife


By David Ljunggren

(Reuters) -A massive wildfire in Canada’s western province of British Columbia prompted more evacuation orders early on Friday, as firefighters race against advancing flames to move all residents from the remote northern city of Yellowknife to safety.

A state of emergency was declared in Kelowna early Friday, a city about a four-drive drive from Vancouver with a population of about 150,000.

“Residents under Evacuation Alert are advised to be ready to leave their home at a moment’s notice,” the City of Kelowna said in a statement early on Friday, adding people should prepare to be away from their home for an extended period of time.

The evacuation orders were issued after wildfires that were discovered on Tuesday jumped Lake Okanagan, sparking spot wildfires in Kelowna.

In Yellowknife, the capital city of Northwest Territories, fire crews and water bombers are trying to save the city of about 20,000 people from a massive wildfire that has forced an evacuation order for the entire population.

Some 10 evacuation planes ferried about 1,500 people out of the city on Thursday and about 22 flights are due out on Friday, while scores of people left via road, authorities said.

Images showed snaking queues of hundreds of people waiting to sign up for evacuation flights, while fires burned either side of the only highway out of the city.

“Nobody envisioned an event of this scale. It’s still really stressful. There are a lot of people still left in Yellowknife that are freaking out,” said resident Tebbia Teoncey, who was evacuated to Edmonton, Alberta.

The massive fire to the northwest of Yellowknife only advanced by around one kilometer on Thursday, officials said, held back by winds. It is now about 15 km away from the city and authorities expect the fires to reach the outskirts of Yellowknife by the weekend.

“We’re heading into a critical couple of days in management of this wildfire,” Mike Westwick, the fire information officer for Yellowknife told reporters on Thursday.

“Those are winds that will trend both of those fires in directions that we don’t want,” he added.

The expanse of fire risk and disruption to life and land underscores the severity of the worst-on-record Canadian wildfire season this year, with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country, including 265 in the Northwest Territories.

Experts say climate change has exacerbated the wildfire problem. Drought has been a contributing factor to the number and intensity of this year’s fires, officials say, with high temperatures exacerbating the situation. Much of Canada has seen abnormally dry conditions.

Around 65% of the Northwest Territories’ 46,000 population look set to be evacuated.

As the evacuation effort in Yellowknife makes progress, the focus is shifting to the western province of British Columbia which is under the threat of dry lightning, igniting more blazes in its sun-baked forests. The City of West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation declared a local state of emergency on Thursday, with about 5,500 properties on evacuation alert.

Officials in British Columbia, which has suffered unusually intense blazes this year, warned residents to prepare for extreme fire conditions.

“The hot dry temperatures, mixed with forecasted dry lightning has increased the risk of wildfires throughout much of British Columbia,” provincial Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma told a briefing on Thursday.

The Pacific province has warned that the next 24 to 48 hours could be the most challenging from a fire perspective this year.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Reporting by David Ljunggren and Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Writing by Denny ThomasEditing by Stephen Coates and Sharon Singleton)

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