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Firefighters tackle a wildfire near the town of La Ronge, Saskatchewan July 4, 2015 in a picture provided by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Government Relations.Saskatchewan government/Reuters

As buses full of evacuees began to roll into Cold Lake, Alta., ash was falling like snow in the coastal town of Powell River, B.C., and flames and smoke were threatening La Ronge in Northern Saskatchewan.

Propelling them all were wildfires, which are burning by the dozens in Western Canada.

On Sunday morning, a pall of smoke hung over Vancouver as fans were hitting the streets for the Women's World Cup soccer final between United States and Japan.

"They [evacuees] are just starting to roll into the city now," Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland said on Sunday, adding that smoke from fires in neighbouring Saskatchewan had drifted into his community over the weekend but was being pushed back by gusty winds.

"It's probably a terrible wind for fighting forest fires but it is blowing smoke away from the [Cold Lake] area – so visibility and air quality will be improved today but I think the fire will be getting bigger with these kinds of winds," he said.

An annual summer event in Canadian forests, wildfires in Saskatchewan this year have forced thousands of residents to flee their homes and over the weekend resulted in military personnel being called in to help protect communities including the town of La Ronge, which has been under a mandatory evacuation order since Saturday.

Some military personnel were expected to begin deploying as early as Sunday.

Over the weekend, fires came within eight kilometres of La Ronge, a lakeside town about 380 kilometres north of Saskatoon in a region where crews have been fighting fires for weeks.

First Nations communities – including the Lac La Ronge and Montreal Lake Indian bands, both near the town of La Ronge – have also been struggling to keep people and homes safe from flames.

By Sunday, some residents escaping from those fires had begun to arrive in Cold Lake, where the Canadian Red Cross is co-ordinating shelter for up to 5,000 people as part of what the agency said would be the largest evacuation it has ever overseen in Saskatchewan. Regina, Prince Albert and Saskatoon are also playing host to evacuees.

Buses were arriving about every half hour in Cold Lake from Prince Albert and evacuees are to be sheltered in the Cold Lake Energy Centre, an arena complex. By mid-afternoon Sunday, about 600 people had arrived, Mr. Copeland said later in an e-mail.

In B.C., fire risk is extreme – the highest level in a five-level rating system – over most of Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and stretches of the coast and the Interior, and fires have resulted in several evacuation alerts.

In recent days, fires have flared up near Port Hardy on Vancouver Island and near Pemberton, north of Whistler, sending a cloud of smoke billowing over the south coast.

On Twitter, writer Charlotte Gill said, "It's snowing ash in #PowellRiver."

In Vancouver, the smoke lent the city the smell of a backyard barbecue and had some people wondering if air quality had deteriorated enough to become a health concern.

Metro Vancouver, the agency that monitors air quality in the Lower Mainland, said early Sunday in a notice on its web site that air quality below the mountains remained relatively clear. But at about 3:30 p.m., Metro Vancouver issued an air-quality advisory because of high concentrations of fine particulate matter due to smoke.

On Sunday, the B.C. Wildfire Service said fire crews continued to face "extreme fire behaviour" in what it has dubbed the Boulder Wildfire Complex near Pemberton. Smoke from three fires in the complex is visible in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton and "extremely high drought codes are driving these fires and they are continuing to pick up momentum," the fire service said Sunday in a news release.

On Sunday, the Saskatchewan Roughriders donated 800 tickets to Sunday's game – against the Toronto Argonauts – to the Red Cross for distribution to fire evacuees in Regina.

Some residents of La Ronge and nearby areas stayed in their homes, having made plans to flee to boats if flames moved in.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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