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Smoke rises as fire singes Fort Nelson on May 14. (Cheyenne Berreault/Anadolu/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Huge wildfires burn across Canada

May 16, 2024

By Elizabeth Wolfe and Joe Sutton, CNN

(CNN) — Colossal wildfires burning across Canada over the last week have driven thousands of people to evacuate with their kids, pets and precious belongings in tow – many uncertain when they may be able to return home.

Firefighters battling more than 100 blazes across the country could see temporary relief in some regions as a large mid-week storm tracks through western and central Canada, bringing increased chances of rain and blasts of cooler air.

Even so, several volatile fires are raging within miles of neighborhoods. Fire officials warn slight changes in weather conditions or wind direction could quickly place nearby homes and businesses at risk.

More than 6,000 people have evacuated from Fort McMurray in Alberta since Tuesday as a 51,000 acre fire burns less than 5 miles from the city’s edge. Residents should plan to be away from their homes until at least May 21, possibly longer, the regional municipality said.

The fire near Fort McMurray was still active Wednesday, but winds were expected to begin pushing the blaze away from the city and its major highway, Alberta Wildfire Information Officer Josee St-Onge said. Rain showers are forecast to begin in the area Wednesday night and drop up to 1 inch of rain through tomorrow.

Around-the-clock firefighting efforts have helped keep the flames at bay, including water helicopters equipped with night vision. Firefighters – some of them defending their own communities – have also been pulling grueling and dangerous shifts.

“To the firefighters braving the flames to defend Fort McMurray and other areas of the province, we appreciate your heroic efforts more than we can say and we pray for your safe return,” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said Wednesday.

For many Fort McMurray residents, the smoke-blackened skies and anxious evacuations recall painful memories of a catastrophic 2016 fire dubbed “The Beast,” which forced 90,000 people to evacuate and wrought billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses.

Resident Jocelyn Routhier, whose neighborhood has yet to be ordered to evacuate, has watched from her back porch as the scene grows eerily similar to the previousdisaster. She shared two uncanny pictures of the fires taken eight years apart.

“This is a déjà vu that I would rather not experience. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a reality,” Routhier said in social media post alongside the images.

‘It’s hard to think anything but the worst’

New fires are cropping up every day across Canada and several out-of-control blazes are threatening populous neighborhoods, prompting scores of evacuating residents to look for lodging in hotels, emergency shelters and camp and RV sites.

Mackenzie Spenrath is among the nearly 5,000 people ordered to evacuate the Fort Nelson area in British Columbia, where the 31,000-acre Parker Lake Fire is burning just 1.5 miles from the community. He told CNN affiliate CBC he has become consumed with watching the news and scrolling social media “trying to figure out if my town is still standing.”

Fort Nelson fire crews may be aided by under an inch of rain forecast Wednesday night and through Thursday evening. But that is far from the amount of precipitation needed to offset drought conditions and extinguish the fires, the British Columbia Wildfire Service said.

“It’s not entirely hopeless, obviously. But the fire is just so close to town that it’s hard to think anything but the worst,” Spenrath said.

Extraordinarily dry conditions are also posing challenges for fire personnel battling a blaze that has come within a mile of the Cranberry Portage community in western Manitoba. About 580 people have been evacuated and there is no estimated time for their return.

“Because the conditions are so extremely dry up there, the fires burned down deep,” Earl Simmons, the director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service, told CBC. “So the firefighters have to get in there and dig really deep into the ground to put it out. And we’re not just talking a few inches, we’re talking meters into the ground in spots.”

The dry conditions driving Canada’s wildfires are aggravated by warming conditions caused by human-driven climate change.

“This region has experienced multiple years of drought, with a below normal snowpack this past winter,” said Ben Boghean, fire behavior specialist for the BC Wildfire Service. “As a result of this, our forests in the Fort Nelson zone are very receptive to new fire ignitions and rapid rates of spread.”

Declining snow, increasing temperatures and worsening droughts are all hallmarks of climate change and are projected to keep driving larger and more intense fires across Canada, according to Environment Canada.

CNN’s Melissa Alonso, Sharif Paget, Taylor Galgano and Caitlin Kaiser contributed to this report.

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