VANCOUVER, BC — As tens of thousands of people were under evacuation orders across British Columbia and firefighters battled raging wildfires throughout Canada on Sunday, fire chiefs in a region known as a summer destination for families said they’ve made some progress in the struggle.
There’s “finally a bit of a glimmer of hope,” West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Broland told a news conference of the progress being made in the Lake Okanagan region of southern British Columbia, an area of picturesque resort towns surrounded by mountains.
“The weather has allowed us to make progress,” he said, adding that crews were able to conduct more traditional firefighting techniques such as putting out hot spots.
If “conditions hold as they are,” he said, fire crews will start to see “real progress being made in a measurable way. And that finally is a bit of a glimmer of hope for us.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of fires continued to rage across British Columbia and 35,000 people were under evacuation orders Sunday.
“It is still very much dynamic,” said Jerrad Schroeder, a British Columbia Wildfire Service chief. “There’s still portions of this fire that we just have not prioritized.”
The provincial government has issued a state of emergency and urged people not to travel for non-essential reasons to the central interior and southeast portions of the province due to “significant” wildfire activity.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the approval of British Columbia’s request for federal assistance and said the government was deploying assets from the Canadian Armed Forces to assist in evacuations. “We’ll continue to be here with whatever support is needed,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year that have also 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. There are still more than 1,000 active fires in the country, according to the agency.
In northern Canada, firefighters continued to battle a blaze that threatened Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.
Fire information officer Mike Westwick said the fire remained about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the city, which was left virtually empty after nearly all of its 20,000 residents fled for safety.
“Even as things dried out and fire behavior picked up, we were able to do some good suppression work form the air and limit the progression,” he said at a media briefing Sunday night.
That blaze is one of 237 wildfires burning in the Northwest Territories.
In a Facebook post, Yellowknife officials said they were working with 20 contractors and 75 volunteers to establish wildfire defense lines around the city, such as fire breaks, water sprinklers and cannons, and aircraft dropping fire retardant. 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 province's environment minister said the fire was “unlikely to reach the outskirts of the community today or tomorrow.”
In Hay River, evacuees could be looking at weeks before they can return home, Mayor Kandis Jameson said in a Sunday morning statement to the community’s 3,800 residents. Warm, dry weather and steady winds are forecast for the upcoming week, she said.
In Fort Smith, southeast of Yellowknife and just north of the Alberta border, the town of about 2,600 remained under an evacuation order Sunday. Officials asked residents to stay away and urged anyone who remained behind to leave because a fire burning four kilometers (2.5 miles) away could be pushed toward the community.
“Every person that returns requires evacuation assistance if the fire enters the community. Please do not add additional strain to the already taxed support network in the community,” Fort Smith Protective Services said in a social media post.
Officials said they could not predict when residents would be allowed to return to their homes.
“We don’t have a timeline at this point,” said Jennifer Young, information officer for the Emergency Management Organization. “When it’s safe to do so we will look at our re-entering plan do it in a phased approach.”
Despite the advances made by firefighters in the Lake Okanagan region, which includes Kelowna, a city of 150,000 people about 90 miles (150 kilometers) north of the U.S. border, fire chief Broland conceded that “some may be coming back to nothing” when evacuees are allowed to return.
“Some of you have lost your homes. There’s no question about that,” he said. “There are lots of backyards where the fire has come right to your patio furniture. And it’s been stopped there because of the work of the 500 people that are on the ground fighting. ”
In Lake Country, a community north of Kelowna, fire chief Darren Lee said Sunday that crews were moving out of the initial attack stage “into more sustained action” on a fire near there. He also asked residents whose homes are not near the fire to leave their sprinklers off to save water for the firefighting effort.
Among those who fled as flames threatened their homes was Todd Ramsay. He recalled sitting on his deck in Kelowna’s North Clifton area 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, wondering 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. Ramsay heard his house had not burned but didn’t know for sure.
“There’s definitely some anxiety around it. Where we’re going to stay, what we’re going to do when we get back, if it’s not there,” 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.”