Canada is struggling to control wildfires that have forced thousands of people to flee, razed towns, halted oil production and caused the western province of Alberta to call for federal help.
About 30,000 people were ordered to leave their homes over the past three days as nearly 100 fires flared across the province – including 27 burning out of control.
Military and federal disaster officials were on standby after Alberta leader Danielle Smith spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to formally ask for assistance. Details of what support would be made available were not immediately released.
“Some of these fires might continue on for several months, so if we can use resources that are already here, the people who are able to help, we want to be open to doing that,” Smith said at a news conference.
In Alberta, firefighters prioritised dousing flames threatening homes and businesses. Many roads near the provincial capital, Edmonton, were blocked as temporary shelters welcomed evacuees.
Officials said 390,000 hectares (964,000 acres) had burned, hospital patients and long-term care residents had to be relocated and many schools were closed.
More than 700 firefighters have been deployed, and Alberta requested a further 1,000 from other provinces who were expected to arrive over the next week, officials said.
Oil firms announced temporary shutdowns of operations, slashing production by more than 125,000 barrels of oil per day.
Canada is the world’s fourth-largest crude producer, and about 80 percent of its oil comes from Alberta. The fires primarily affected light oil and natural gas producers, who closed operations as a precaution. No injuries or damage to facilities had been reported so far.
Many residents and oil workers rode to safety in motorhomes or with campers in tow and set them up in empty parking lots. Others are staying with friends or family, such as Jerry Greiner, a resident from Dayton Valley, west of Edmonton.
“We could see the smoke on Friday, and there was a pretty strong wind,” said Greiner, 55, his eyes tearing up as he recounted receiving the order to evacuate.
“We quickly grabbed our bags [and went] to our friends’ house. About 12 people stayed there,” he said, adding that it was the first time he ever had to flee wildfires.
Dayton Valley, a town of 7,000 people, was abandoned. Trees and grass fields all around were blackened by the fires, and smoke billowed from a few charred buildings, but most of the homes appeared intact.
It was not clear when residents would be permitted to return.
Resident Randy Braun, 57, said the fire chief told locals it would be “at least a week minimum”.
Kathy Bereuwski, 61, escaped with her family and dogs. “The sky was pitch black” with smoke and falling ash, she said.
In the northern community of Fox Lake, a fire destroyed 20 homes, a store and a police station. Residents had to be evacuated by boat and helicopter.
Alberta’s premier declared a state of emergency on Saturday, calling the wildfires “unprecedented”.
The province “has been experiencing a hot, dry spring and with so much kindling, all it takes is a few sparks to ignite some truly frightening wildfires”, Smith said.
Almost all of Alberta as well as much of neighbouring Saskatchewan province, parts of British Columbia and a large swathe of the Northwest Territories face extreme fire risks.
Two out-of-control wildfires in westernmost British Columbia have also forced residents to evacuate, and authorities have warned they expect strong winds to expand those blazes.
Record high temperatures
In recent years, western Canada has been hit repeatedly by extreme weather, the intensity and frequency increased because of climate change.
Forest fires in Canada’s oil sands region in 2016 disrupted production and forced out 100,000 residents from Fort McMurray, pummeling the nation’s economy.
More recently in 2021, British Columbia suffered record-high temperatures over the summer, which killed more than 500 people, and wildfires that destroyed an entire town.
That was followed by devastating floods and mudslides.
Christie Tucker, a spokesperson with Alberta’s wildfire agency, said precipitation brought “a continuation of yesterday’s break in the hot weather across most of the province with light scattered showers”.
“It’s a much needed chance to make progress on some of these powerful, challenging wildfires,” she said. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”