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Residents flee, airlifts begin as wildfire approaches capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories

Damage from the wildfires is shown on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 between Enterprise and Kakisa, Northwest Territories, Canada. Thousands of people in eight other communities, have already been forced to evacuate their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, where 80% of the town was destroyed. Officials said everyone made it out alive. (Ryan Planche via AP)

YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories (AP) — Residents of the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories began fleeing an approaching wildfire in long convoys Thursday while air evacuations were underway for those who could not leave by road, the latest chapter in Canada’s worst fire season on record.

The fire was within 16 kilometers (10 miles) of the northern edge of Yellowknife, and people in the four areas of the city of 20,000 at highest risk were told to leave as soon as possible, Fire Information Officer Mike Westwick said.

Residents in other areas should be out by noon Friday, because strong north winds could push the fire toward the highway needed for evacuation, Westwick said. Although some rain was forecast for the region, first responders were taking no chances.

“I want to be clear that the city is not in immediate danger and there’s a safe window for residents to leave the city by road and by air,” Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Territories, told a news conference. “Without rain, it is possible it will reach the city outskirts by the weekend.”

Authorities said the intensive care unit at a Yellowknife hospital would close within 24 hours as the Northwest Territories health authority starts to reduce its services.

In-patient units from Stanton Territorial Hospital would be moved in the coming days, if required, and most long-term care patients have been transferred to institutions to the south, the Health and Social Services Authority said on its website.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was convening an urgent meeting with ministers and senior officials Thursday to discuss the evacuation.

About 6,800 people in eight other communities have already been forced to evacuate their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, where 80% of the town was destroyed. Officials said everyone made it out alive.

A woman whose family evacuated the town of Hay River on Sunday told the CBC that their vehicle began melting as they drove through embers, the front window cracked and the vehicle began filling with smoke that made it difficult to see the road ahead.

“I was obviously scared the tire was going to break, our car was going to catch on fire and then it went from just embers to full smoke,” Lisa Mundy, who was traveling with her husband and their 6-year-old and 18-month-old children, told the CBC. She said they called 911 after they drove into the ditch a couple of times.

She told CBC her son kept saying: “I don’t want to die, mommy.”

Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the U.S. — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 137,000 square kilometers (53,000 square miles), according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. As of Thursday, 1,053 wildfires were burning across the country, more than half of them out of control.

In the Northwest Territories alone, 268 wildfires have already burned more than 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles).

Officials said evacuations from the Northwest Territories have so far been safe and orderly, and that evacuees from the capital who can’t find their own accommodations can get support in three centers in the nearby province of Alberta that were expected to open by noon Thursday. The closest of those centers is more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) by road from Yellowknife.

Only those without the option of leaving by road should register for the evacuation flights, officials added. People who are immunocompromised or have a condition that puts them at higher risk also were encouraged to sign up.

“We’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories,” Premier Caroline Cochrane posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. She urged residents to obey emergency management officials, traffic control devices and posted speed limits. “The country is watching, and our neighbours are keeping us in their thoughts and prayers.″

The evacuation order issued Wednesday night applies to the city of Yellowknife and the neighboring First Nations communities of Ndilo and Dettah. Eight communities totaling nearly 6,800 people, or 15% of the Northwest Territories’ population, have already left, Mike Westwick, the region’s fire information officer, said earlier in the day.

Indigenous communities have been hit hard by the wildfires, which threaten important cultural activities like hunting, fishing and gathering native plants.

The U.S. has also seen devastating wildfires, including one on the Hawaiian island of Maui, which killed more than 100 people and destroyed a historic town.

Rural areas near California’s border with Oregon were placed under evacuation orders Wednesday after gusty winds from a thunderstorm sent a lightning-sparked wildfire racing through national forest lands, authorities said.