Early forest fires prompt evacuations in Canada

This handout photo courtesy of BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), taken in the night of May 10 to 11, 2024, shows the wildfire threatening Fort Nelson in British Columbia, Canada. Thousands of people fled their homes on May 12, 2024 in western Canada as hundreds of wildfires beginning earlier than usual portend a difficult fire season. (Photo by Andrei AXENOV / BC Emergency Health Services / AFP)

MONTREAL, May 12, 2024 (AFP) – Thousands of people fled their homes Sunday in western Canada as hundreds of wildfires beginning earlier than usual portend a difficult fire season.

The small town of Fort Nelson in the province of British Columbia was among the areas threatened by flames.

“Fires are really all around us from the west to the northeast,” Mayor Rob Fraser told AFP as he urged hundreds of people who have stayed put to get out of the town.

A fire covering an area of 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) was burning 3.5 kilometers (two miles) to the west of Fort Nelson. Nearly 3,500 were evacuated Friday evening.

Cooler weather overnight helped slow the advance of the fire but strong winds later picked up in the afternoon, which could fan the flames, said Fraser.

The town is enduring the highest level of drought on a five-stage scale, he added, and “that makes it extremely difficult for, you know, trying to control these wildfires out there.”

In the neighboring province of Alberta, 43 fires were burning, including one 15 kilometers from the town of Fort McMurray, forcing people to prepare for possible evacuations.

The town is located in a forested area known for oil production from tar sands.

In 2016 it was hit by a fire that prompted the evacuation of 90,000 people, in a major catastrophe that saw 2,500 buildings destroyed and billions of dollars in damage.

Evacuation orders were also issued over the weekend in small towns in Alberta and Manitoba province, while smoke from wildfires drifted over much of western Canada, lowering air quality dramatically, the federal government said.

Last week the government put out an update that said higher than normal temperatures in the next few months along with drought conditions will increase the risk of wildfires — and their intensity.

Last year was Canada’s worst ever for forest fires, with flames burning from coast to coast and charring more than 15 million hectares of land. Eight firefighters died and 230,000 people were evacuated.