Firefighters report more progress against Canadian wildfires and wait for rain

Fire Chief Jason Broland said the biggest challenge now is the region’s poor air quality, which he described as ‘choking’

A helicopter battles the McDougall Creek wildfire as it burns in the hills West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, on August 17, 2023, as seen from Kelowna.
A helicopter battles the McDougall Creek wildfire as it burns in the hills West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, on August 17, 2023, as seen from Kelowna.DARREN HULL (AFP)

Firefighters successfully prevented wildfires from destroying any more structures in a scenic region of British Columbia, authorities said Monday, as the prospect of rain raised hopes for the effort to contain the flames.

Fire Chief Jason Broland said fire crews made more progress in the West Kelowna area, known as a summer destination for families. He said the biggest challenge now is the region’s poor air quality, which he described as “choking.” “Rain is in the forecast, and I am optimistic about that,” Broland said.

However, teams surveying damaged neighborhoods found 50 buildings destroyed, Broland said.

“Undoubtedly, that number will grow higher, but it’s difficult to tell because some of the areas are the more rural or remote areas where the properties are further apart,” he said.

More than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away, fire crews fought flames bearing down on Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. On Sunday, the fire remained about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the city, which was left virtually empty after nearly all 20,000 residents fled for safety.

Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year, with blazes chasing tens of thousands of people from their homes. The fires have also sent smoke into parts of the U.S.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the approval of British Columbia’s request for federal assistance.

“People are fleeing for their lives. They’re worried about their communities, and Canadians from coast to coast are watching in horror the images of apocalyptic devastation,” Trudeau said Monday at a news conference in Cornwall on Prince Edward Island.

Trudeau planned to meet later in the day with senior cabinet ministers and other officials to discuss the fires.

All told, there have been more than 5,800 fires, which have burned more than 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles) from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

Brolund asked displaced residents to be patient until it is safe enough for them to return to their neighborhoods.

“In many cases, your neighborhoods and houses are covered with sprinklers and those sprinklers are protecting your home. It means we can’t send you home,” he said.

Communities in southern British Columbia and in the Northwest Territories continued to endure heavy smoke. Numerous “very high” warnings for poor air quality were in place on Monday. The BC Wildfire Service reported 386 such warnings.

In a Facebook post, Yellowknife officials said they were working to establish wildfire defense lines around the city, creating fire breaks and using water sprinklers, cannons and fire retardant dropped by planes. A protective line of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) has been established.

“We are not out of the woods yet, as many factors can change the status of a fire quickly,” the post said.

Shane Thompson, the Northwest Territories environment minister, said the fire was unlikely to reach the outskirts of the city on Monday.

Still, in Hay River, evacuees could be looking at weeks before they can return home, Mayor Kandis Jameson said Sunday in a statement to the community’s 3,800 residents. Warm, dry weather and steady winds are forecast for the upcoming week, she said.

Among those who fled as flames threatened their homes was Todd Ramsay. He recalled sitting on his deck in Kelowna’s North Clifton area and watching the fire rage on the other side of Lake Okanagan, about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) away. He didn’t think it would be possible for the flames to jump the lake, but they did.

“Sure enough, it started raining pine cones and tree bark,” he said. A fire quickly started behind his house, and there were “huge plumes of smoke just carrying embers across the lake.”

Ramsay said he turned on a water sprinkler, and he and his family packed up to flee Thursday night as trees were burning. They wondered if they’d see their home again.

By Saturday, Ramsay, his wife, two children, two cats and a dog had driven to North Vancouver to stay with his sister. He heard his house had not burned but didn’t know for sure.

“There’s definitely some anxiety around it,” he said. “I’m an artist. I have a lot of my paintings there. The more important thing obviously is all of us are safe. But we’ve worked hard our whole lives to have this home.”

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