© 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. REUTERS/Pat Kane
By Chris Helgren and Nia Williams
KELOWNA, British Columbia (Reuters) -Forest fires in Canada’s western province of British Columbia intensified further on Saturday, doubling the number of people under an evacuation order to 35,000 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 and partially shut down some sections of a key transit route between the Pacific coast and the rest of western Canada, and destroyed many properties.
“The current situation is grim,” Premier Daniel Eby told reporters on Saturday, saying some 35,000 people are under an evacuation order, and a further 30,000 were under 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.
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.
“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.
By Friday, an out-of-control fire in southern B.C. grew more than a hundredfold in 24 hours and forced more than 2,400 properties to be evacuated. The fire was centered around Kelowna, a city some 300 kilometres (180 miles) east of Vancouver, with a population of about 150,000.
The fires moved so rapidly on Friday that the number of people under evacuation order grew from 4,500 to 15,000 in an hour, while another 20,000 were under evacuation alert. The province currently accounts for over a third of Canada’s 1,062 active fires.
The flames have already 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.
MAIN EAST-WEST ARTERY UNDER THREAT
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.
TransCanada is the main east-west artery used by thousands of motorists and road freight heading to Port of Vancouver, the country’s busiest port.
Kip Lumquist, who works at the gift shop in Craigellachie, British Columbia, a tourist spot on the TransCanada 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 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.”
Some 5,000 customers are also without electricity in interior B.C. due to the fires, the main utility said.
Forest fires are not uncommon in Canada, but the spread of blazes and disruption underscore the severity of its worst wildfire season yet.
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.
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.
The escalation in B.C. comes as the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife evacuated most of its roughly 20,000 residents due to a large approaching blaze.
People left their homes and property behind on Thursday and Friday to seek refuge in neighbouring provinces due to the threat of the creeping fire cutting off land exits and potentially doing worse harm.
Residents and tourists drove away on roads flanked by fire and smoke, while local and federal authorities flew out some others.
The massive blaze threatening Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’ capital city, made little headway on Friday as firefighters held it back.
But strong winds could still blow the blaze toward the city, and it could reach the outskirts this weekend, the territory’s fire service has cautioned.