British Columbia declares state of emergency as firefighters battle blazes

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Canada’s western province of British Columbia declared a state of emergency on Friday as firefighters battled wildfires raging in the hills and mountains above the town of West Kelowna, forcing thousands of evacuations.

West Kelowna, a city of 36,000 people, is located some 300 kilometers (180 miles) east of Vancouver. Evacuations were also being carried out north of nearby Kelowna, a city with a population of about 150,000 also on Okanagan Lake.

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The flames and smoke were visible from West Kelowna, and smoke filled the valley surrounding the lake. Earlier the airspace in the area had been closed to clear the way for water bombers.

“We are facing the worst wildfire season in our province’s history,” British Columbia Premier David Eby told reporters when he made the declaration. “This unprecedented situation has come to a head this evening. In just the last 24 hours, the situation has evolved and deteriorated quite rapidly.”

The province has gone from about 4,500 people being under an evacuation order to about 15,000 people in the past 24 hours. An additional 20,000 people are under an evacuation alert.

“The situation is unpredictable right now, and there are certainly difficult days ahead,” Eby said.

More than 2,400 properties were evacuated earlier in West Kelowna, officials said, and several structures were destroyed during the night.

“We fought hard last night to protect our community,” Jason Brolund, West Kelowna fire chief, told reporters earlier. “Night turned to day because of the orange glow of the clouds and the fire.”

The expanse of fires and disruption to life and land underscore the severity of this year’s worst-on-record Canadian wildfire season, with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country.

Some 1,425 km to the northeast, the massive blaze threatening Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’ capital city, made little progress on Friday, the territorial fire service said, because of successful firefighting.

However, strong winds are still blowing the blaze toward the city, and it could reach the outskirts by the weekend. “Critical, challenging days” lie ahead, the fire service said.

The fire is about 15 km (9 miles) northwest of the city. Fires have been burning on either side of the only highway out of town, which remained open.

“It is on fire on both sides of the road ... it’s a very surreal experience,” said Brent Saulnier, who had been visiting.

By Friday evening, some 19,000 of the city’s 20,000 inhabitants had evacuated, the territories’ environment and communities minister Shane Thompson told reporters.

“Some are choosing to shelter in place. If you are still in Yellowknife and you are not essential to the emergency response, please evacuate,” Thompson said.

“There’s a real possibility that the highways and the airport could be impacted by these wildfires.”

Experts say climate change has exacerbated the wildfire problem. Drought and high temperatures have contributed to the number and intensity of this year’s fires, officials say. Much of Canada has seen abnormally dry conditions.

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