By TAMMY WEBBER and JIM MORRIS (Associated Press)
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Firefighters worked to keep open the only route out of the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as a wildfire moved closer to the city of 20,000 and residents rushed to beat a noon Friday deadline to evacuate.
Airtankers flew missions overnight to keep the highway out of Yellowknife open, and authorities were guiding a long caravan of motorists through fire zones, officials said. Meanwhile, a network of fire guards, sprinklers and water cannons was being established to try to protect the city from the fire, which had moved to within 15 kilometers (9 miles).
Northwest winds combined with minimal rain were complicating efforts to slow the fire, which could reach the city limits by the weekend, emergency officials said. There was a chance of limited rain on Friday, but officials said it likely wouldn’t be enough to stop the fire.
“We’re heading into a critical couple of days,” Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Territories, told a news conference.
Hundreds of kilometers (miles) south of Yellowknife, homes were burning in West Kelowna, British Columbia. Residents had already been ordered to evacuate 2,400 properties, while another 4,800 properties were on evacuation alert after a wildfire grew “exponentially worse” than expected overnight, the fire chief said.
Some first responders became trapped rescuing people who failed to evacuate, said Jason Brolund, chief of the West Kelowna fire department, but there was no known loss of life.
Brolund said residents face another “scary night.”
The BC Wildfire Service said the fire grew six times larger overnight and is stretches over 68 square kilometers (26 square miles).
In Yellowknife, gas stations that still had fuel were open Friday morning, though the city was virtually empty, with one grocery store, a pharmacy and a bar still open, the Canadian Press reported. “It’s kind of like having a pint at the end of the world,” said Kieron Testart, who went door-to-door in the nearby communities of Dettah and NDilo to check on people.
Thousands of people have fled the fire, one of hundreds of wildfires raging in the territories, driving hundreds of kilometers (miles) to safety or waiting in long lines for emergency flights, as the worst fire season on record in Canada showed no signs of easing.
Ten planes left Yellowknife with 1,500 passengers on Thursday, said Jennifer Young, director of corporate affairs for the Northwest Territories’ Department of Municipal and Community Affairs. The city of Calgary said in a statement that another 26 flights are expected to arrive Friday from the Territories, carrying about 2,300 more people.
Federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez said Friday that all commercial airlines have added more flights, and that the government was contracting private aircraft to supplement military flights.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the fire didn’t advance as much as expected on Thursday, but “it is still coming,” and heavy smoke that is expected to move in increases the urgency of evacuating while it’s still possible.
Alice Liske left Yellowknife by road with her six kids earlier this week because the air quality was so bad. She worried about how so many people would flee the city in such a short time.
“Not only that,” she said, “but when we go back, what will be there for us?”
Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the U.S. — 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 Centre.
As of Friday morning, more than 1,000 wildfires were burning across the country, over half of them out of control.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his incident response group Thursday. He asked ministers to work to ensure communication services remained available and said there would be no tolerance for price gouging on flights or essential goods.
The evacuation order issued Wednesday night applied to Yellowknife and the neighboring First Nations communities of Ndilo and Dettah. Indigenous communities have been hit hard by the wildfires, which threaten important cultural activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering native plants.
About 6,800 people in eight other communities in the territory have already been forced to evacuate their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, which was largely destroyed. Officials said everyone made it out alive.
A woman whose family evacuated the town of Hay River on Sunday told CBC that their vehicle began to melt as they drove through embers, the front window cracked and the vehicle filled with smoke that made it difficult to see the road ahead.
“I was obviously scared the tire was going to break, our car was going to catch on fire and then it went from just embers to full smoke,” said Lisa Mundy, who was traveling with her husband and their 6-year-old and 18-month-old children. She said they called 911 after they drove into the ditch a couple of times.
She said her son kept saying: “I don’t want to die, mommy.”
Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan.