Canada deploys an army to British Columbia to combat the rapidly spreading wildfires

  • British Columbia declares a state of emergency after wildfires
  • The fire led to evacuation orders for more than 35,000 people
  • AQI for some British Columbia cities at ‘hazardous’ levels

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday that Canada is sending the military to tackle fast-spreading wildfires in British Columbia, as the western province deals with flames that have prompted evacuation orders for more than 35,000 people.

British Columbia declared a state of emergency and imposed a ban on non-essential travel to provide accommodations for evacuees and firefighters, urging drone operators and others taking photos of the fires to stay away from rescue workers.

In some cities in British Columbia, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures major pollutants including particulate matter from fires, was above 350, a “hazardous” level, according to the Real-Time Air Quality Information Platform.

At midnight (0400 GMT), Salmon Arm had the worst air quality index in the nation, with an AQI of 470. Among other cities, Kelowna College and Sicamous both had an AQI of 423.

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Prolund said he saw some hope after battling “epic” fires over the past four days. Conditions improved, he said, helping firefighters put “boots on the ground” and douse water on the flames that threatened the town of 150,000.

“We finally feel like we’re moving forward instead of backwards, which is a great feeling,” Prolund told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Trudeau said in a tweet that the federal government will provide support from the Canadian military to “assist with evacuations, prep” and other logistical tasks in response to a request from the British Columbia government.

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Wildfires are not uncommon in Canada, but the spread of fires and unrest highlights the severity of the worst wildfire season yet, which some experts have blamed on climate change.

Reuters graphics

Other fires, exacerbated by severe drought, have been reported near the US border and in the US Pacific Northwest.

Across the border in Washington state, firefighters battled two major fires, the Gray Fire and the Oregon Road Fire, which collectively have blackened more than 20,000 acres of forest and destroyed more than 100 structures.

In Canada, government officials have urged residents in areas with evacuation orders to leave immediately to save their lives and prevent firefighters from dying trying to save them.

Officials gave no estimate of the total number of buildings destroyed. Videos and photos on social media showed destroyed structures and vehicles, and huge flames devouring trees.

The Canadian government-owned Trans Mountain Pipeline and its expansion project, which winds its way to the Pacific Coast through the interior of British Columbia, has not been affected by the fires, a company spokesperson said Sunday.

The Coquihala Extension of the Pipeline, southwest of Kamloops, is the closest to the fire.

“Underground pipelines are usually buried a few feet below the surface and protected by soil from fire and the constant movement of the liquid that passes through the pipeline,” the spokesperson added.

The fires drained local resources and drew federal aid as well as support from 13 countries. At least four firefighters were killed.

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About 140,000 square kilometers (54,054 square miles) of land, roughly the size of New York state, were burned across the country, with smog spreading as far as the eastern coast of the United States. Government officials expect that the fire season may extend into the fall due to widespread drought-like conditions.

Since 2009, Canada has spent more on fighting and extinguishing wildfires than on maintaining firefighting personnel and its program.

The sky is on fire

About 2,000km to the north, a wildfire burning out of control in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territory, led to the evacuation of all of its 20,000 residents last week.

Officials said the fire is not expected to reach the city limits by the end of the weekend, as some rain and cooler temperatures have helped slow its progress.

It’s been an arduous journey, said Krista Phleger, who left town with her two dogs.

“I was afraid of getting caught in the fires that were approaching the road,” she said.

For Fleger, the main concern is whether her house, which is only two years old, will survive.

In British Columbia, the TransCanada Highway was closed near Chase, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Vancouver. The highway is the main east-west artery used by thousands of motorists and truck drivers heading to Vancouver, the nation’s busiest port.

Kip Lumquist, who works in a gift shop in Craigellachie, a highway tourist spot, said she’s seen a lot of destruction over the past week.

“It was crazy. We couldn’t see hills, mountains, trees, anything, for maybe two and a half days,” Lumquist said. “I drive a white car, and when I got out to get in my car… it was just black… It’s devastating to the community.”

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(Reporting by Nia Williams) Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Nilotpal Timsina in Bengaluru.

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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