Canada’s western province of British Columbia faces a ‘grim situation’ as wildfires intensify, forcing more than 35,000 people to evacuate their homes and destroying many properties. The province declared a state of emergency on Friday, as the fires partially shut down some sections of a key transit route between the Pacific coast and the rest of western Canada.
The province has experienced strong winds and dry lightning in the past few days due to a cold mass of air interacting with hot air built-up in the sultry summer. That has intensified existing forest fires and ignited new ones. Authorities have warned of difficult days ahead and urged people to avoid non-essential travel to make more temporary accommodation available.
One of the worst-hit areas is Kelowna, a city 300 kilometres east of Vancouver, with a population of about 150,000. An out-of-control fire in the area grew more than a hundredfold in 24 hours and forced more than 2,400 properties to be evacuated. The fire moved so rapidly on Friday that the number of people under evacuation order grew from 4,500 to 15,000 in an hour, while another 20,000 were under evacuation alert.
Some witnesses described driving through raging wildfires to rescue their relatives or escape the flames.
The province currently accounts for over a third of Canada’s 1,062 active fires. 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.
The wildfires have also affected neighboring provinces and states. Smoke from the fires has reduced air quality and visibility in parts of Alberta, Montana and Idaho. Some flights have been canceled or delayed due to the poor conditions.
The Canadian government has pledged to support the province in its efforts to contain the fires and assist the evacuees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he spoke with British Columbia Premier David Eby on Saturday and assured him of federal assistance. He also thanked the firefighters and emergency workers for their courage and dedication.
The wildfires are part of a larger pattern of extreme weather events that have been linked to climate change. Canada has seen record wildfires this year, more than 5,000, as well as unprecedented heat waves and floods. Scientists have warned that such events will become more frequent and intense as global temperatures rise.