Residents in parts of British Columbia have been ordered to evacuate as wildfires are raging across the Canadian province following a record heat wave that officials say contributed to hundreds of deaths.
Around midday on Saturday, 176 fires were considered active across BC, including 76 that were reported over the past two days, according to a BC Wildfire Service dashboard.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District, which covers 11 municipalities in the centre of the province, said nine evacuation orders urging residents to immediately leave their homes were active as of Saturday afternoon. Four evacuation alerts, which advise residents to prepare to leave on short notice, were also active.
“Generally speaking, we’re three weeks ahead of our drying cycle,” Cliff Chapman, director of regional operations for the BC Wildfire Service, told reporters on Friday afternoon, as reported by CBC News.
“It is not really comparable to seasons of the past just because of the heat wave that set in in June.”
Chapman said about 12,000 lightning strikes were reported across the province on Thursday alone, CTV News also reported.
Lytton's Main Street, before and after yesterday's devastating fire.
(Photo from a Chilliwack Fire Department member) pic.twitter.com/OaoRvg1ch3
— Justin McElroy (@j_mcelroy) July 1, 2021
The fires come after Canada’s westernmost province experienced record-breaking temperatures over the past week, with the village of Lytton, about 275km (170 miles) northeast of Vancouver in the BC interior, shattering the countrywide record several days in a row.
Lytton ordered a community-wide evacuation after enormous fires broke out this week, forcing residents to flee. At least two people have died, local media reported.
“There was sheer panic,” Lytton First Nation acting Chief John Haugen said, as reported by CBC. “It blew in and just took everything in its path.”
On Friday evening, Canadian Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said the federal government was setting up an emergency response base in Edmonton, Alberta, to help respond to the wildfires.
“We will position more air resources in Edmonton as quickly as is possible, including a Hercules aircraft & two Chinook medium-heavy lift helicopters. They can be used to provide airlift of firefighters and equipment into & out of affected areas & support evacuations of residents,” Sajjan said on Twitter.
Given the serious nature of the wildfire situation in Western Canada, we are establishing a forward operating location in Edmonton, which will be able to provide support across the west if required.
— Harjit Sajjan (@HarjitSajjan) July 3, 2021
The BC government has also announced disaster financial assistance for local governments and First Nations that have been affected by the blazes.
“As the Premier said yesterday, the provincial and federal governments will be there to help Lytton rebuild the community,” Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general, said in a statement.
Experts have pointed to climate change as driving the early wildfire season and recent heat, which meteorologists said was linked to a so-called “heat dome” – a weather system that traps in hot air – that descended on the west coast, as well as on the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Officials and residents continue to grapple with the effects of the heat.
BC’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said on Friday that 719 deaths were reported between June 25 and July 1 – three times more than would normally occur in a similar period. She said many of the deaths were among elderly people living alone in private residences with minimal ventilation.
“We are releasing this information as it is believed likely the extreme weather B.C. has experienced in the past week is a significant contributing factor to the increased number of deaths,” Lapointe said in a statement.
“Some parts of the province are continuing to experience unusually high temperatures, and it remains important that we all take extra care to avoid the dangerous effects of severe heat. Please look out for family, friends and neighbours, particularly those who live alone.”
Colton Davies, a journalist with Radio NL News in Kamloops, BC, said the situation is “very, very dire”.
“Where I am in Kamloops there’s several significant, very large-scale, out-of-control fires that are burning outside of the city limits,” Davies told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
“In the past four days or so, as we’re speaking, more than 75,000 hectares of forest [have] been lost alone from these devastating wildfires.”