By Chris Helgren
KELOWNA, British Columbia (Reuters) – Thousands of British Columbia residents were on high evacuation alert on Saturday after rapidly intensifying wildfires forced the western Canadian province to declare a state of emergency.
The Pacific province has seen strong winds and dry lightning in the past 36 hours due to a cold mass of air interacting with hot air built-up in the sultry summer. That intensified existing forest fires in the province and ignited new ones.
By Friday, an out-of-control fire in southern British Columbia grew more than hundredfold in 24 hours and forced more than 2,400 properties to be evacuated. The fire was centered around Kelowna, a city some 300 kilometres (180 miles) east of Vancouver, with a population of about 150,000.
As conditions continued to deteriorate quickly through Friday evening, Premier Daniel Eby declared a province-wide state of emergency to access temporary authoritative powers to tackle fire-related risks.
“This is an historic wildfire season for British Columbia,” Eby told a briefing.
About 15,000 people were under evacuation orders Friday evening, and another 20,000 are under an evacuation alert. The province currently accounts for over a third of Canada’s 1,062 active fires.
“The state of emergency declaration … communicates to people across the province the seriousness of the deteriorating situation,” Eby said. “(It) enables a number of legal tools for us to issue specific orders and to ensure that resources are available.”
The flames have already destroyed several structures in West Kelowna and authorities have been warning that the province could potentially face the worst couple of days of the fire season this year.
Forest fires are not uncommon in Canada, but the spread of blazes and disruption to life and land underscore the severity of its worst wildfire season on record this year.
The fires have drained local resources and drawn in federal government assistance as well as support from 13 countries. At least four firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty.
About 140,000 square kilometres (54,054 square miles) of land, roughly the size of New York state, have already burnt, and government officials project the fire season could stretch into autumn due to widespread drought-like conditions in Canada.
The escalation in British Columbia comes as the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife evacuated most of its roughly 20,000 residents due to a large approaching blaze.
People left their homes and property behind on Thursday and Friday to seek refuge in neighboring provinces due to the threat of the creeping fire cutting off land exits and potentially doing worse harm.
Residents and tourists drove away on roads flanked by fire and smoke, while some others were flown out by local and federal authorities.
The massive blaze threatening Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’ capital city, made little headway on Friday as firefighters held back its progression.
But strong winds could still blow the blaze toward the city, and it could reach the outskirts this weekend, the territory’s fire service has cautioned.
(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and Kim Coghill)