Town preps possible 'last stand' as wildfires rage across Western Canada

A fire expert is warning that an intense wildfire could hit a town in western Canada, based on forecasts of strong winds that have been fueling the out-of-control blaze, which has already forced the evacuation of thousands

Via AP news wire
Monday 13 May 2024 11:37 BST

An intense wildfire could hit a town in western Canada on Monday, based on forecasts of strong winds that have been fueling the out-of-control blaze which has already forced the evacuation of thousands, fire experts and officials warned.

The British Columbia Wildfire Service said the blaze is currently burning just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) northwest of Fort Nelson, which has already seen about 3,500 people evacuated from there after an order to leave was issued on Friday.

In a video posted on social media late Sunday, fire behavior specialist Ben Boghean with the the British Columbia Wildfire Service said the extreme fire behavior — made worse by years of drought and a below-normal snowpack this past winter — could end up threatening the crews that have been fighting the nearby Parker Lake wildfire.

In 2023, Canada witnessed a record number of wildfires that also caused choking smoke in parts of the U.S. and forced more than 250,000 Canadians to evacuate their communities. There were no civilian casualties, but at least four firefighters died while battling the blazes.

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality based in Fort Nelson, said that fire crews and emergency workers are preparing for a “last stand” if the fire advances into the town itself.

Cliff Chapman of the B.C. Wildfire Service encouraged about 100 or 150 people left in the community to leave.

Fort Nelson is located in the far northeastern corner of British Columbia, about 1,600 kilometers (995 miles) from the city of Vancouver. Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson Indian Reserve have a combined population of around 3,400 people.

The wildfire threatening Fort Nelson continues to grow, with the most recent update late Sunday night indicating it had swelled to nearly 53 square kilometers (20 square miles.)

Fraser urged anyone who had previously defied the order to leave immediately, warning that local resources like water pressure and electricity may diminish or stop outright for public use since much of the supply will be directed to support firefighters trying to suppress the wildfire.

The province’s minister of emergency management Bowinn Ma said Sunday night to supplement limited accommodations for evacuees, the province is setting up an additional space with 200 rooms in Sunset Prairie, a community 440 kilometers south of Fort Nelson (273 miles).

The blaze is one of several out-of-control wildfires in Western Canada threatening nearby communities in provinces such as Alberta and Manitoba.

“The wind is going to be sustained and it is going to push the fire towards the community,” Chapman, BC Wildfire’s director of operations, warned in Sunday night’s update video about the fire threatening Fort Nelson.

“Escape routes may be compromised and visibility will be poor as the fire continues to grow,” he said.

Fires are also burning near Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie in Alberta, while officials in Manitoba have evacuated about 500 people from the community of Cranberry Portage, some 700 kilometers (434 miles) northwest of Winnipeg.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta has maintained an alert for Fort McMurray residents to be ready to evacuate on short notice, as the fire located about 16 kilometers (10 miles) to the southwest has reached 55 square kilometers (22 miles) in size.

Smoke from the fires have prompted air-quality alerts spanning from B.C. to Manitoba.

Despite the warnings for people in Fort McMurray to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, schools there were still open Monday.

Both the public and Catholic school divisions in Fort McMurray say they continue to monitor the situation, and that they understand some parents may not want to send their kids attending school right now.

Both school divisions say that provincial achievement tests that were scheduled for this week are being postponed.

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