Gusting winds and tinder-dry conditions are worsening wildfires in Western Canada, while firefighters are making some progress in the eastern part of the country to control blazes that have forced thousands of residents out of their homes.
With nearly 32,000 people across the country still unable to return home as blazes roar in nearly every province and territory, Ottawa will replace passports, permanent residency cards, citizenship and other travel documents for free, federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Monday. Extensions will also be granted for certain work and students visas.
“Making sure these disasters don’t displace people who are on a specific kind of work permit is something I think is incredibly important,” Mr. Fraser said in Ottawa.
Nearly 450 wildfires are burning from coast to coast, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Just under half of those are considered out of control, while 129 are under control and the remaining 99 are being held, which means the blaze isn’t expected to grow but its status can still fluctuate. Canada has already recorded its worst wildfire season on record with more than 4.8 million hectares of land torched – and the season is far from over.
Firefighters from a number of other countries are helping Canadian crews douse raging flames and additional support is on the way. Crews from Chile, Costa Rica, Spain and Portugal are arriving this week to problem areas such as Quebec and Alberta. This international effort has led to some success in provinces such as Quebec.
Thousands of Quebeckers have been given the green light to return home as the situation improves, including 7,500 residents from residents of Chibougamau, 500 kilometres northwest of Quebec City, and several Indigenous communities. On Monday, Premier François Legault said fewer than 4,000 evacuees will remain by the end of the day, down from about 13,500 on Friday.
Firefighters managed to contain a blaze on Sunday that had came within 500 metres of the northwestern town of Normétal, but residents are still under evacuation orders, as are locals of the nearby town of Lebel-sur-Quévillon.
A battalion of nearly 350 fire personnel are arriving or already on the ground in Quebec from France, Portugal and Spain to fight the wildfires. It is the first time in the 22-year history of the European Union Emergency Response Coordination Centre that reinforcements have been sent to Canada, after a request for help last Wednesday.
Wildfires have, so far, burned more than 740,000 hectares in Quebec’s “intensive zone,” covering most of the inhabited territory, which is more than 300 times the 10-year average for this time of year.
But, in other parts of the country, new evacuation orders have been triggered, as flames push closer to community limits.
The number of evacuees in Alberta has more than tripled over the last week, as fires continue to grow west of Edmonton. Edson, Alta., a small town of about 8,400 people, was evacuated for the second time on Friday, where a nearby burn jumped fire guards and inched closer to people’s homes and local businesses.
The fire in that area grew by 70,000 hectares between Friday to Saturday, Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Melissa Story said during a news conference on Monday afternoon. She said it is now more than 204,000 hectares in size and is burning two kilometres south of Edson. The Canadian military is planning to deploy additional members to the area.
One couple said they hadn’t unpacked from the first evacuation.
“I’ve kind of had bags kept in the bedroom because I didn’t feel it was a good time to unpack yet with the weather being so crazy,” Selena Wilson said Sunday at a campground east of Edmonton, where she and her husband have taken refuge in their camping vehicle.
In total, there are now 76 active wildfires in Alberta, with 24 considered out of control – a situation exacerbated by climate conditions.
“Any time we see extended periods of hot, dry conditions, the wildfire danger will grow along with the wildfire behaviour,” Ms. Story said, though she expects some reprieve in the coming days. “Tomorrow, a low pressure system will bring widespread rain into the province that should extend into Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to decrease and humidity will increase, which will help firefighters responding to these wildfires.”
In neighbouring B.C., evacuation orders have been issued for another 14 remote properties outside of the northeast community of Fort Nelson, as the nearby Donnie Creek wildfire grows. It is now the second-largest blaze recorded in the province’s history at 4,049 square kilometres. The BC Wildfire Service said more than 140 people are trying to get the fire under control.
In all, five wildfires of note are among the 80-plus fires burning in the province.
Meanwhile, firefighters in Nova Scotia are preparing to tackle the largest wildfire in the province’s history with a new tactic. Officials with the natural resources department are going to fly a helicopter over the 235-square-kilometre fire in Shelburne County, along the province’s south shore, and use infrared scanners to detect areas where firefighters should be dispatched. That fire, while not growing, is still classified as out of control.
With files from The Canadian Press