VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Canadian firefighters prevented wildfires from destroying more structures in a scenic region of British Columbia and stepped up their defense of a territorial capital threatened by flames, authorities said Monday as the prospect of rain raised hopes for the effort to contain the blazes.
Fire Chief Jason Brolund said fire crews made more progress in the West Kelowna area known as a summer destination for families. He reported no new property losses in the previous 24 hours and said the biggest challenge now is the region's poor air quality, which he described as “choking.”
Weather predictions called for light showers beginning Monday evening and extending into Tuesday morning.
“Rain is in the forecast, and I am optimistic about that,” Brolund said.
Bruce Ralston, British Columbia’s minister of forests, said the forecast would not bring “the days of solid rain that we really need,” but it might offer “enough to allow fire crews to make more headway.”
“The last few days have been the most difficult days fighting wildfires in BC’s history,” Ralston said.
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.
In all, 386 fires are currently burning, and 3,500 people are fighting the flames, Ralston added.
The forecast carried risks too. The British Columbia Wildfire Service predicted that Tropical Storm Hilary, which drenched southern California with rain, could bring stronger winds to fan the flames. There was also heightened danger from lightning strikes that could spark more fires.
As teams surveyed damaged neighborhoods, they found 50 buildings destroyed, Brolund said.
“Undoubtedly, that number will grow higher, but it’s difficult to tell because some of areas are the more rural or remote areas where the properties are further apart," he said.
Bowinn Ma, British Columbia's minister of emergency management and climate readiness, said 62,000 people were under either evacuation orders or an evacuation alert, which warns residents to be ready to flee.
“We hope the darkest days are over, but the situation continues to evolve,”″ Ma said.
Elsewhere, firefighters battling a wildfire near the capital of the Northwest Territories shifted from defense to offense after a weekend of cooler temperatures, favorable winds and some rain.
“We’re in a position to move to direct attack on that fire,” said Mike Westwick, a fire information officer.
Until now, firefighters had mostly focused on trying to stop the spread or reduce the intensity of the flames near Yellowknife. That means building fire lines to rob the blaze of fuel or dropping water on it from the air.
“A lot of the tactics we’ve been using have been more indirect,” he said. “In this case, we’d be looking at putting out fire right on the perimeter, which is more of an offensive strategy.”
Flames remained about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Yellowknife. The city was left virtually empty after nearly all 20,000 residents fled for safety.
Jennifer Young, information officer for the NWT emergency Management Organization said in evening news conference via zoom that 25,900 people have been evacuated from the entire territory or about 60% of the population.
Nearly 5 mm (0.20 inches) of rain over the weekend helped prevent the flames from spreading while swirling winds tended to push the fire back on itself, Westwick said.
More rain was expected but would likely bring with it potentially fire-starting lightning strikes.
“This is all pretty good news, except for the lightning,” Westwick said.
“We believe it is highly unlikely to reach the outskirts of Yellowknife over the next three days.”
Yellowknife officials warned city employees, first responders and volunteers who remained behind to be aware of wildlife displaced by the wildfires. In a message posted Sunday on Facebook, officials said bears and other animals have been reported roaming the mostly empty city.
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 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 also accused Facebook of putting profits over people’s safety during the emergency.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, announced earlier this summer it would keep its promise to block news content from Canada on its platforms because of a new law that requires tech giants to pay publishers for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.
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. Many “very high” warnings for poor air quality were in place on Monday.
Residents who stayed behind in the Kelowna area were taping up their windows and using air purifiers and humidifiers to battle the smokey air. In a local Facebook group, some residents said they felt ill after going outside for a few minutes.