Authorities in western Canada have implored tens of thousands of people to heed evacuation orders and warned of difficult days ahead as “severe and fast-changing” forest fires in the province of British Columbia (BC) intensified further.
Premier Daniel Eby told reporters on Saturday that the number of people under an evacuation order in the province has doubled to 35,000 from a day earlier and that a further 30,000 were under an evacuation alert.
“The current situation is grim,” Eby said.
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BC declared a state of emergency on Friday, with an out-of-control fire in the province’s southern region growing more than one hundredfold in 24 hours.
The fire – centred around Kelowna, a city of 150,000 people and located some 300 kilometres (180 miles) east of Vancouver – has partially shut down some sections of a key transit route between the Pacific coast and the rest of western Canada, and has destroyed many properties.
The situation in the popular boating and hiking destination was “highly dynamic”, said Bowinn Ma, BC’s minister of emergency management.
“We cannot stress strongly enough how critical it is to follow evacuation orders when they are issued,” she said at an afternoon news conference. “They are a matter of life and death not only for the people in those properties, but also for the first responders who will often go back to try to implore people to leave.”
Gord Milson, the mayor of West Kelowna, described the mood in the town as “anxious”.
“There’s just so much smoke it’s difficult to truly assess what’s occurring,” he told Al Jazeera. “But we were able to get further air support today which will help us fight the fires. But unfortunately there was some structures lost last night and today. So, we are not out of it by any means.”
The blazes in BC come amid strong winds and dry lightning due to a cold mass of air interacting with hot air built-up in the sultry summer. Those conditions have intensified existing forest fires and ignited new ones.
The province accounts for more than a third of Canada’s 1,062 active fires.
“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.
Officials in BC said the province is in dire need of shelter for evacuees and firefighters and have ordered a ban on non-essential travel to make more temporary accommodation available.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who convened a meeting of key ministers and senior officials on Saturday to discuss the blazes, said he has spoken with the province’s premier about the “rapidly evolving and incredibly devastating wildfire situation” and pledged federal resources in responding to the disaster.
The blaze has forced the closure of the Trans-Canada highway near the village of Chase, about 400km (248 miles) northeast of Vancouver, as well as between the villages of Hope and Lytton.
Kip Lumquist, who works at the gift shop in Craigellachie, a tourist spot on the Trans-Canada highway, told the Reuters news agency she has seen 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.”
The escalation in BC 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 of some others.
The massive blaze threatening Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’s capital city, made little headway on Friday as firefighters held it back.
But strong winds could still blow the blaze towards the city and it could reach the outskirts this weekend, the territory’s fire service has cautioned.
“We’re by no means out of the woods yet,” Mike Westwick, Yellowknife’s wildfire information officer, told The Associated Press news agency. “We still have a serious situation. It’s not safe to return.”
All told, there have been more than 5,700 fires that have burned more than 137,000 sq km (53,000 sq miles) from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
The affected area is roughly the size of Greece and almost twice the area of the last record of 73,000 sq km (28,185 sq miles). Four people have died so far.
Scientists say human-caused global warming is exacerbating natural disasters, making them both more frequent and more deadly.