Hi everyone, both Mark Iype in Edmonton and Wendy Cox in Vancouver today.
It has been a disturbing and dangerous week in Western Canada with the unrelenting wildfire season showing no signs of letting up. More than 20,000 residents of Yellowknife have been forced to flee while a fast-moving fire in British Columbia has destroyed dozens of homes and threatened to engulf Kelowna.
First it was the Northwest Territories dealing with wildfires that forced several small communities to be evacuated. The town of Enterprise was destroyed by a blaze while the nearby community of Hay River was emptied, but appears to have mostly emerged unscathed. But by Wednesday evening, officials ordered more than 20,000 residents of the capital city of Yellowknife to evacuate by Friday at noon. While efforts to save the city appear to have slowed the advancing fire encouraged by dry conditions and heavy winds, nearly the entire population had either left on the 15-hour drive to Edmonton and beyond or boarded evacuation flights to Calgary on Friday evening.
While crews continued to fight the blaze and NWT officials tried to help the remaining residents leave in a safe and orderly manner, the hospital remained an area of concern. Despite the Friday deadline for everyone to be out of the city, there were still 38 patients left at the hospital waiting for a specialized evacuation flight to get them to safety. It remained unclear when exactly that would happen.
These are “more complex” inpatients and require medical care and support during transit, said Alexander Keefe, a spokesman for Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority. “The goal is to have the hospital patient evacuation completed in the next 24 hours,” he said in an email Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, in Kelowna, residents were gripped once again with fear and uncertainty as a ferocious fire, fed by strong winds and hot and dry conditions, swept to the city’s limits. It was 20 years and two days since a previous devastating fire, started by a lightning spark near Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, forced 33,000 to evacuate and destroyed 200 homes.
The 2003 fire was considered unprecedented. But this year, fires have burned six times more area in British Columbia and the two fires now threatening Kelowna, West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation have a power that has awed even seasoned firefighting veterans.
West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said one firefighter described the situation to him as “a hundred years of firefighting in one night.”
He said a “significant” number of structures were lost, including houses, though he said it was too early to give a specific number. “There are homes burning out there right now and there are homes at risk.”
RCMP officers knocked on thousands of doors, ensuring people understood the evacuation order was urgent. At one residence, where occupants refused to leave, Brolund said first responders were forced to rescue them but found themselves trapped by flames that had closed off the only route of escape. All emerged okay, but Brolund and other fire officials sternly advised residents to pay attention and to treat evacuation alerts as prep time for an inevitable evacuation order.
“We put you on evacuation alert for a reason. This is the real deal.”
Brolund said the worst may be on the way because of windy and continuing hot and dry weather conditions.
“We knew it was going to be bad and this is what we planned for and this is what we practise for. But it was exponentially worse than we expected.”
Cliff Chapman, the director of provincial operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, told reporters a fire in the Fraser Canyon has created a large pyrocumulonimbus cloud, a weather phenomenon that can shoot flame into the atmosphere. He said in his 20 years of experience he’s seen little like it.
“There were real concerns yesterday from people in Vancouver that there was a volcanic eruption,” he said, with flames reaching heights of 120 to 150 metres in the air.
“There is very little that response tactics can do with these winds and that type of fire behaviour. And so when I say extreme, what it means is that they [the fires] are moving faster than we can effectively put firefighting resources on them.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief Mark Iype. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.