Thousands of residents have fled the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories ahead of an approaching wildfire, some driving hundreds of kilometres to safety and others signing up for emergency flights, the latest chapter in Canada's worst fire season on record.
"I have asthma, and the wildfire smoke was making it increasingly difficult to do anything," Tiffany Champagne, wearing a face mask, told public broadcaster CBC on Thursday while waiting at the airport in Yellowknife.
The fire, boosted by strong northern winds, was within 16 kilometres of Yellowknife's northern edge, and people in the four areas at highest risk were told to leave as soon as possible, Fire Information Officer Mike Westwick said.
Officials worried that winds could push the flames toward the only highway leading away from the fire as long caravans of cars evacuated the city of 20,000, and although some rain was forecast, first responders were taking no chances. Westwick urged residents in other areas to leave by noon Friday.
"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.
Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the US — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 137,000 square kilometres from one end of Canada to another, 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 kilometres.
Thursday's evacuation of Yellowknife was by far the largest so far this year, said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and fire chief in Red Deer, Alberta.
"It's one of those events where you need to get people out sooner rather than later," because fire could block the only escape route before ever reaching the community.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was convening an urgent meeting with ministers and senior officials on Thursday to discuss the evacuation.
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 were transferred to institutions to the south, the Health and Social Services Authority said on its website.
Officials said evacuations have so far been safe and orderly, and that evacuees from Yellowknife who can’t find their own accommodations can get support in three centres in the province of Alberta.
The closest of those centres is more than 1,000 kilometres by road from Yellowknife.
Officials in Calgary said they're preparing to take in thousands of evacuees, and are opening a reception centre at the Calgary airport, where five evacuation flights were expected to arrive on Thursday.
A second centre has been set up at a hotel for those who drive to the city, said Iain Bushell, the city’s director of emergency management.
Only those who cannot leave by road should register for the evacuation flights, officials added.
People who are immunocompromised or have conditions that put 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."
'Dangerous, fast-moving' fire
The evacuation order issued Wednesday night applies to the city of Yellowknife and the neighbouring First Nations communities of Ndilo and Dettah.
Indigenous communities have been hit hard by the wildfires, which threaten important cultural activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering native plants.
Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire specialist with Parks Canada, has said the wildfires "are so dangerous and so fast-moving" that evacuations increasingly are necessary, which is a challenge in remote communities where there might be one road in, or no roads at all.
The US has also seen devastating wildfires, including fires last week on the Hawaiian island of Maui that killed more than 100 people and destroyed a historic town.
Rural areas near California’s border with Oregon were placed under evacuation orders on Wednesday after gusty winds from a thunderstorm sent a lightning-sparked wildfire racing through national forest lands, authorities said.