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Wildfire triggers race to evacuate entire Canadian city of Yellowknife

Authorities in Canada are racing to evacuate nearly 20,000 residents from the territorial capital, Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories by Friday as a raging wildfire nears the city.

With the blaze threatening to reach the city in the coming days, firefighters have battled to ward off flames that have advanced to nearly 10 miles from Yellowknife, officials said.

“The wildfire situation has taken another turn for the worse, with the fire burning west of Yellowknife now representing a real threat to the city,” said Shane Thompson, the territory’s environment and climate change minister.

“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,” he told a news conference Wednesday evening. But he urged residents to leave by noon local time on Friday in a phased evacuation.

“Without rain, it is possible [the fire] will reach the city outskirts by the weekend,” he said. “You put yourself and others at risk if you choose to stay later.”

Photos showed a long line of cars along the only main highway out of Yellowknife, where the approaching flames risk cutting off access to nearby communities.

People who cannot leave by car, are immunocompromised or have conditions that put them at higher risk were asked to sign up for evacuation flights scheduled to start Thursday.

Residents lined up at gas stations on Wednesday night to fill up their tanks and make their way out of Yellowknife. “I’m nervous about my home here,” one man told Canadian outlet Global News from his car. “The threat is real. I saw it for myself. The smoke is right there,” he said.

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Gas and tow trucks will be available along the highway, along with pilot vehicles to help evacuees out of smoky areas, Canadian media reported.

Nearby residents, including Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories, were also ordered to evacuate as officials described the situation as “unprecedented.”

Wildfires in Canada have charred nearly 33 million acres (13.3 million hectares) around the country, burning twice as much land as any previous season — an area equivalent to Alabama or nine Connecticuts.

Many fires are still burning as record-challenging heat, intensified by climate change, combines with long-term drought to fuel the flames.

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The most intense wildfire activity in the past week has focused on Quebec and the Northwest Territories, The Washington Post reported. The flames in the Northwest Territories have already forced communities to evacuate in recent days.

One evacuee from the town of Hay River told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that her car began melting as she and her family drove through embers to escape.

Contending with more than 200 fires, authorities in the Northwest Territories declared a state of emergency earlier this week. Firefighters have faced erratic winds in recent days, and flames advanced closer than anticipated.

“Throughout this all, we continue to do everything possible to slow the growth of the fire,” Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said.

Ian Livingston contributed to this report.

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