By DAVID SHARP and JIM MORRIS (Associated Press)
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Firefighters battling wildfires in British Columbia on Saturday sought to stop flames that swept through West Kelowna suburbs and forced the evacuation of the University of British Columbia campus in Kelowna.
The capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, meanwhile, was transformed into a virtual ghost town after nearly all the residents of the city of just over 20,000 fled another wildfire, among hundreds of fires in western Canada.
British Columbia was under a province-wide state of emergency as firefighters waged an epic battle. West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund told a news conference that the fire “was exponentially worse than we expected.”
“We fought 100 years of fires all in one night,” he said Friday, ahead of another night of battling the flames. There were no reports of deaths but he said “significant number” of structures were destroyed.
Firefighters in Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, feared the fire could reach the city this weekend without rain. The forecast called for sunny skies across the province on Saturday.
Officials said Friday evening that about 19,000 people had left Yellowknife in less than 48 hours, with about 15,000 driving out in convoys and 3,800 leaving on emergency flights.
There were fears that the only escape route could be cut off as about 2,600 people remained behind, including emergency teams, firefighters, utility workers and police officers, along with residents who refused to leave.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met Friday with some of the Yellowknife evacuees in Edmonton, shared on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, on Saturday that, “We’ve got your back.”
Trudeau praised firefighters, police, military personnel, the Red Cross and others who responded to this natural disaster and others this summer.
“Terrible loss, increased extreme weather events. And all through it, we’ve seen Canadians step up,” he told reporters in Edmonton on Friday.
Canada’s Heritage Minister, meanwhile, urged Meta to lift its ban on users sharing local news on its Facebook and Instagram social media platforms to facilitate the flow of information to residents in fire-imperiled areas. Pascale St. Onge described Meta’s policy, instituted in response to a new law requiring Meta to pay news providers, as “reckless.”
Meta said it enabled its “safety check” program for users to let others know they were safe, while encouraging people to access information from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations.
Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year that have caused choking smoke in parts of the U.S. All told, there have been more than 5,700 fires, which have burned more than 137,000 square kilometers (53,000 square miles) from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
The fires were unnerving for residents in British Columbia, with plumes of smoke by day and an eerie orange glow at night.
Video shot by Todd Ramsay north of Kelowna captured the moment of alarm when nearby trees caught fire, and his family was forced to flee in traffic gridlocked by emergency vehicles and people trying to escape.
In Yellowknife, air tankers dropped water and fire retardant on the flames. A 10-kilometer (6-mile) fire line was dug, and firefighters deployed 20 kilometers (12 miles) of hose and a plethora of pumps in the fight to keep the fire at bay.
Streets were nearly empty and stores were shuttered. A grocery store and a pharmacy remained open Friday but were expected to close. The last gas station still operating shut down. “It’s a ghost town,” said Kieron Testart, who was going door to door in the nearby First Nation communities of Dettah and NDilo to check on people.
Sharp reported from Portland, Maine.
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