Evacuation almost empties Yellowknife as Canada fires rage

Roughly 65 per cent of Northwest Territories' population expected to leave their homes

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Firefighters were battling wildfires in two Canadian provinces on Saturday as one city was emptied of almost 20,000 people and another was watching the blazes edge closer.

In British Columbia, flames swept through the suburbs of West Kelowna, about 300 kilometres from Vancouver, and forced the evacuation of the University of British Columbia campus in Kelowna.

Kelowna, a city of 150,000, was choked with thick smoke. Meanwhile, nearly all residents of Yellowknife, more than 2,000km north of Kelowna, were evacuated.

Hundreds of other fires were also raging in western Canada, with British Columbia under a provincewide state of emergency.

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund told a news conference that the fire “was exponentially worse than we expected”.

“We fought 100 years of fires all in one night,” he said. There were no reports of deaths but he said a “significant number” of structures were destroyed.

British Columbia introduced travel restrictions and has about 35,000 people under evacuation orders, with tens of thousands more on alert for possible evacuation.

“The current situation is grim,” British Columbia Premier David Eby said on Saturday. “Please just stay out of these areas if you don’t have to be there."

Officials said Friday evening that about 19,000 people had left Yellowknife, with about 15,000 driving out in convoys and 3,800 leaving on emergency flights.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with some of the Yellowknife evacuees in Edmonton. He posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: “We've got your back.”

Officials said the fire could creep into Yellowknife this weekend.

“There is a possibility that this fire reaches the outskirts of Yellowknife by the weekend driven by these north-west and west-northwest winds,” the Northwest Territories' fire agency said.

“Successful firefighting efforts have held back progression meaningfully over the last two days.”

Fire crews were continuing to fight more than 200 blazes in the region.

The agency said there would be two days of winds that could potentially push the flames towards the Ingraham Trail, “where we do not want them to go”.

The agency said that while there is “minimal growth on this fire” due to firefighting efforts, there remains a threat to all areas of the Ingraham Trail.

Airtankers were also working to slow the spread of flames to keep open Highway 3, the only motorway in and out of Yellowknife.

Kelowna has a population of 150,000 people.

Experts say climate change has worsened the wildfires, of which Canada has experienced many this year. More than 13.7 million hectares have been burnt this season, with smoke drifting into the US and even across the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe.

Updated: August 20, 2023, 3:46 AM