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Wildfire nears capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as fleeing residents fill roads and flights

Firefighters worked to keep open the only route out of the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories as a wildfire moved closer to the city of 20,000 and residents rushed to beat a noon Friday deadline to evacuate.

Airtankers flew missions overnight to keep the highway out of Yellowknife open, and authorities were guiding a long caravan of motorists through fire zones, officials said. Meanwhile, a network of fire guards, sprinklers and water cannons was being established to try to protect the city from the fire, which had moved to within 15 kilometers (9 miles).

Northwest winds combined with minimal rain were complicating efforts to slow the fire, which could reach the city limits by the weekend, emergency officials said. There was a chance of limited rain on Friday, but officials said it likely wouldn’t be enough to help.“We’re heading into a critical couple of days,” Shane Thompson, a government minister for the Territories, told a news conference.

Thousands of people have fled the fire, one of hundreds of wildfires raging in the territories, driving hundreds of kilometers (miles) to safety or waiting in long lines for emergency flights, as the worst fire season on record in Canada showed no signs of easing.

Ten planes left Yellowknife with 1,500 passengers on Thursday, said Jennifer Young, director of corporate affairs for the Northwest Territories’ Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, adding that the agency hopes 22 flights would leave Friday with 1,800 more passengers.

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the fire didn’t advance as much as expected on Thursday, but “it is still coming,” and heavy smoke that is expected to move in increases the urgency of evacuating while it’s still possible.

Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year — contributing to choking smoke in parts of the U.S. — with more than 5,700 fires burning more than 137,000 square kilometers (53,000 square miles) from one end of Canada to the other, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

As of Friday morning, more than 1,000 wildfires were burning across the country, over half of them out of control. Hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the south of Yellowknife, hundreds of properties were ordered to evacuate because of the threat from a wildfire near West Kelowna, British Columbia.

The evacuation order issued Wednesday night applied to Yellowknife and the neighboring 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.

About 6,800 people in eight other communities in the territory have already been forced to evacuate their homes, including the small community of Enterprise, which was largely destroyed. Officials said everyone made it out alive.

By Associated Press

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