Thousands more Canadians were warned Monday they could face evacuation under threat of huge forest fires that have already forced some 37,000 people from their homes in the west of the country in the past week.
The situation was worst in southern and central British Columbia, where scorching weather has left the western province on high alert for the past 10 days.
Wild fires were also devastating forests in California, where a lightning storm on Sunday near the Yosemite national park started a blaze dubbed the “Detwiler fire” which razed almost 11 square miles, according to Cal Fire firefighters.
Around 50 alerts were issued in towns and villages in British Columbia, forcing residents to flee their homes with no guarantee they can return in the near future.
The fires, which authorities had hoped were coming under control late last week, returned with a vengeance over the weekend, fanned by strong winds and increasing in number as lightning strikes sparked new blazes.
On Saturday, the 11,000 residents of Williams Lake were forced to abandon their homes and spend hours stuck in traffic jams on the only evacuation route still open from their town, surrounded by flames in the middle of the night.
A dozen towns set up emergency centers to accommodate those fleeing the fires, providing camp beds and food, but towns such as Kamloops and Prince George were starting to be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people arriving every day.
– Rockies under threat –
Around 3,000 firefighters from all over Canada, together with 200 helicopters and fire-fighting planes were battling 150 blazes in British Columbia, several of which were raging out of control.
A fire-fighting helicopter crashed in the region on Saturday, and its pilot — who was alone on board — was being treated in hospital.
Since April 1,641 fires have destroyed some 500 square miles of forest in the province.
Some of the worst fires, such as the blaze near the town of Ashcroft, cover tens of thousands of hectares.
The fires may even threaten areas further east, in the Rocky Mountains, home to some of the country’s most important national parks like the nature reserve in Banff, in Alberta, which receives almost four million tourists every year.
The rapid spread of the fires, and the thick, acrid smoke billowing from the afflicted areas prompted the environment ministry on Monday to issue an air quality advisory in Calgary, in Alberta province, hundreds of miles from the fires and on the other side of the Rockies.
The fires are currently encroaching on some of the country’s most popular tourist areas, at the height of the season and just when Canada is expecting a flood of visitors to celebrate its 150th anniversary, when it will grant free access to its national parks.