Thousands scramble to evacuate capital of Canada's Northwest Territories as more than 200 'unprecedented' wildfires blanket region

Thousands of residents are rushing to evacuate the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories as more than 200 fires burn, leaving many to face dangerous road conditions or stand in line for hours for desperately needed emergency flights. Evacuations were also under way in British Columbia.

The Northwest Territories capital Yellowknife – home to about 20,000 – and several other Northwest Territories communities have been ordered to evacuate as crews battle 236 active wildfires, and a massive fire creeps toward the city and a major highway.

The infernos in the Northwest Territories are among more than 1,000 fires burning across Canada as the country endures its worst fire season on record. Smoke from the fires has drifted into the US, bringing harmful pollution and worsening air quality.

As of Friday evening, about 19,000 Yellowknife residents have been evacuated due to threats from wildfires, according to an estimate from the city's mayor.

"The evacuation has been a huge success," Mayor Rebecca Alty said in a press conference Friday evening. "We've managed to basically evacuate the whole city by now."

The fire complex is about 15 km (9.3 mi) outside Yellowknife's boundaries and hasn't progressed much in the past couple of days, according to Mike Westwick, a wildfire information officer for the Northwest Territories.

"This fire could be much closer right now if we didn't have those successful days of suppression and a little bit of help from weather," Westwick said.

"A couple good days does not mean we're out of the woods at all, so to speak," he added. "We've still got a long way to go here."

A little rain was possible but strong northwest and west-northwest winds could push the fire to the outskirts of Yellowknife by the weekend, according to a Facebook post from a government fire-monitoring account.

The Canadian government has deployed "significant military assets" to assist with air evacuations and firefighting efforts in the Northwest Territories, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference in Edmonton on Friday night.

"We're coordinating the air evacuations, we're making sure that we're there to respond to all the needs of community now and will be there in the coming months and years as we look to keep people safe moving forward, even as we rebuild in places where there are terrible losses," Trudeau said.

At a separate news briefing, Canadian leaders pledged no one would be left behind during the unprecedented evacuation from Yellowknife and getting residents out safely would continue through the weekend.

"We'll continue to focus on helping the most vulnerable and will be there for as long as it takes," Defense Minister Bill Blair said.

While most were encouraged to leave via the only road out of the community, as many as 5,000 residents had requested flights out of the city.

Smoke continues to shroud Yellowknife, as it has for weeks, but an unpredictable wind and a raging fire forced officials to order a complete evacuation.

However, federal officials said they were confident they could continue to protect the majority of the community from fire damage and are working on building fire breaks by clearing trees and applying fire retardant.

More than 29,500 people – approximately 65% of the Northwest Territories' population – are currently under evacuation orders, according to a spokesperson from the Northwest Territories' Cabinet.

Military assisting with airlifts

The Canadian Armed Forces are assisting with firefighting and airlifting efforts in the Northwest Territories. The Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed several planes and helicopters to support regional emergency crews.

The first CAF aircraft, a CC-130 J Hercules, conducted an evacuation flight Thursday and transported 79 passengers to Edmonton, the CAF said. Additional flights are scheduled for Friday.

Incoming and outgoing commercial flights at airports in the Northwest Territories have been canceled because of the wildfires. Commercial flights in and out of Yellowknife Airport will stop after the last flight departs on Friday evening, according to an update on the government website.

Evacuation flights will still be able to operate out of the airport as well as medical evacuations, firefighting and military-related flights, the government site said.

More than 1,000 people were flown out of Yellowknife on emergency flights Thursday, and close to an additional 2,000 seats were available Friday, territory officials said in an online update. Many hoping to fly out Thursday stood for hours in a winding, slow-moving line only to be told they would need to try again on Friday, CNN partner CBC reports.

"We understand that this is deeply frustrating for those who have been in line for several hours and who will need to line up again tomorrow," the territory update said. It added people who are immunocompromised, have mobility issues or have other high-risk conditions were moved up in the line.

Officials are encouraging people to leave by car, if possible, and carpool to reduce traffic and assist those without vehicles.

"Evacuation flights should be used as a last resort for those who do not have the option to evacuate by road," territory officials said.

But some driving out of the area have faced thick smoke and roadways flanked with flames. Yellowknife resident Ruoy Pineda told CNN he and his family struggled to navigate through the heavy haze after the evacuation order was announced Wednesday.

"We were not actually fully prepared," Pineda said. "On the road, we were all scared of what we saw ahead of us, but we keep reminding ourselves it is better to be out than stranded."

Pineda described the dangerous road conditions as he and others tried to flee the capital.

"On the road you could see the fire and we were struggling because of the smoke," he said. "The visibility on the road was very bad. We couldn't even see if someone was ahead of us."

'Very worried about our house'

He and his family were still on the road Thursday morning and were headed to seek shelter in Edmonton, about 900 miles to the south.

"We are very exhausted right now. We've barely slept and are very worried about our house in Yellowknife and if we'll still have a home," Pineda said.

Fires in Canada have burned more than six times more land this year when compared to the 10-year annual average, according to data from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

There have been more fires in Canada this year than compared to the 10-year average, with a 128% difference. Yet the fires appear to be spreading much wider than before, and so far this year, more than 13 million hectares have been burned – an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The data, current as of August 9, show the 10-year average of area burned to date sits at just over 2 million hectares.

British Columbia evacuates thousands

British Columbia Premier David Eby described the province's wildfire situation as grim, saying about 35,000 people are currently under evacuation orders with more expected in the coming days.

"We have about 30,000 people who are on advisory that within a matter of hours could receive notice that they're on evacuation orders as well," he said at a press conference Saturday.

Eby announced a new emergency order for the province, temporarily restricting lodging for non-essential travel in the Okanagan region to make accommodations readily available for evacuees and first responders.

Under the order, BC officials are restricting non-essential travel to the communities of Kelowna, Kamloops, Oliver, Osoyoos, Penticton and Vernon.

Some fires have reached over 400 feet tall and are moving "faster than we can effectively put firefighting resources on them," Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for BC Wildfire Service, said Friday.

Lightning has been the primary cause of new fires, according to Chapman.

"There is very little that response tactics can do with these winds and that type of fire behavior," Chapman said.
In a span of 48 hours, the province had experienced "some of the worst conditions" it has ever faced from wildfires, he said Saturday.

High gusts in fire-ravaged Kelowna, situated about 180 miles east of Vancouver, continued through the night Friday into Saturday, fueling fires that burned down what officials called a "significant" number of structures, including many homes.

Officials said there were no reports of loss of life despite descriptions of harrowing rescues.

The McDougall Creek fire near West Kelowna has experienced "significant growth" in the past 12 hours, expanding to 10,500 hectares by Saturday, according to the BC Wildlife Service.

Kelowna International Airport closed to commercial flights to allow space for fire fighting activity to take place, according to a news release from the airport.

Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston said British Columbia has more than 380 active fires – more than any other Canadian province, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. The forecast winds and lightning may cause fires to move and grow quickly, officials have warned.

Ralston said there are approximately 3,400 firefighting personnel directly engaged with wildfire response across the province, including firefighters from Australia, Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica.

Nearly 60 evacuation orders were in effect across the province Thursday, the British Columbia Wildfire Service said.

Among the displaced are residents of at least 4,800 properties who were ordered to evacuate in the province's West Kelowna area on Wednesday and Thursday as the McDougall Creek fire advanced, local emergency officials announced.

A state of emergency has been declared in Kelowna, as crews are combating spot fires coming from across the Central Okanagan Lake, stemming from the McDougall Creek fire, according to a news release Friday.

Video taken by resident Todd Ramsay shows a lake rimmed by large hills engulfed in a wall of fire.

"Absolutely devastating," Ramsay said of the devastation in a Facebook post. "The fire jumped the lake and was right behind our house."

Ramsay said he was eventually able to evacuate to safety.