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Royal Canadian Airforce aircraft airlift residents of Fort Smith, NWT as wildfires burn on Aug. 14. Hundreds of people started to be airlifted to safety from remote villages threatened by wildfires in Canada's far north overnight Monday to Tuesday after Yellowknife declared an emergency.HANDOUT/The Canadian Press

The mayor of a small town in the Northwest Territories says time is running out for residents to board evacuation flights as wildfires block highway access to the community and flames and smoke threaten to close the skies for safe transport.

On Tuesday, the government declared a territory-wide state of emergency.

Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson said roughly 500 people in a town of about 3,500, including some seniors, have yet to evacuate after being ordered to on Sunday. Strong winds propelled the Kakisa fire about 30 kilometres toward the town in a few short hours on the weekend, ravaging homes and other structures in its path, and forcing the closings of the only two highways out of the community.

But the biggest concern is getting that message to those remaining, she said. Most residents of Hay River don’t have access to the internet, cellular services or landline telephones because of wildfire disruptions and it’s unclear when they will be restored. The town can’t issue alerts and people can’t call for emergency services.

Instead, community leaders are relying on word-of-mouth, e-mail, radio and, in part, social media. There is no hospital, no gas, no pharmacy, stressed Ms. Jameson.

“It is life-threatening to be here,” she said during a press conference on Tuesday, urging any residents still sheltering at home to find transport out of Hay River immediately. The fire, the mayor added, is now about 15 kilometres from the town.

“We’ve got some breathing space right now – we had some rain last night. However, if things change and this fire starts running at our community, we have no way to let people know,” she said. “The biggest concern I have is, if this fire starts to run at our community, of course we’re going to lose our airport.”

Officials say the unprecedented wildfires in the NWT require the largest airlift in its history with people under evacuation orders in Enterprise, Fort Smith, Hay River, the K’atl’odeeche First Nation and Jean Marie River. Homeowners in the areas of North Prosperous Lake, North Prelude Lake, River Lake and on a stretch of Highway 3 must also leave their homes.

Several other communities have been told to prepare to leave should the situation worsen, including residents in the capital city of Yellowknife, which declared a state of emergency on Monday night. The city is not currently considered under threat but fires burn nearby. A similar alert has been issued for the town of Inuvik at the far northwestern tip of the NWT.

Situated on the edge of Great Slave Lake, Hay River residents could leave by boat but it’s a dangerous option without the ability to communicate quickly, Ms. Jameson said. The mayor said she is “scared to death” with how slowly evacuations are going.

Ramanda Sanderson, who evacuated twice in a 24-hour period, is one of thousands of NWT residents who have fled their homes because of 236 wind-fuelled wildfires ripping through the territory. Flames drove Ms. Sanderson out of her home in Fort Smith on Saturday and again from what was supposed to be a safe haven, Hay River, on Sunday.

Ms. Sanderson, now staying with relatives in the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in Alberta, said the stress of evacuating twice is like nothing she has experienced – “Minutes feel like hours and days never seem to end.” In her convoy were 23 people, including her fiancé and family members.

“Being in the hypervigilant state that we were already in from evacuating Fort Smith, once we saw the smoke rolling in and the black ash falling, we just jumped into action immediately,” she said in an e-mail. “We got out immediately and within 45 minutes of driving past Enterprise, it was engulfed in flames.”

Wildfires have scorched more than 13.4 million hectares of land across Canada so far this season – far above the 10-year average of 2.1 million hectares. Firefighting resources have been severely strained and many parts of the country are relying on help from other countries and the Canadian Forces to help battle blazes and evacuate residents.

Adding fuel to the fires are hot, dry conditions, particularly in British Columbia and Alberta.

The 10 hottest communities in Canada were all located in B.C. on Monday and the blistering temperatures are not expected to lower for at least a few days. In the province’s Interior, the communities of Lytton and Lillooet both broke the 40 C mark on Monday with other communities expected to join the 40-plus club.

The province’s wildlife service said a cold front from the northwest is due Thursday and will hit the high-pressure system, raising the alarm for further wildfire activity as it brings heat, strong winds and lightning without rain.

Meanwhile, most of southern Alberta is under heat warnings from Environment Canada, issued when very high temperatures are expected to increase health risks. The agency said daytime highs are expected to reach between 30 to 35 C until at least Friday. In Calgary, outdoor water restrictions were put in place on Tuesday as the city deals with drought conditions as well.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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