Military put on standby to evacuate fire-threatened towns in western Canada

Ottawa prepared Friday to send military aircraft and other help to evacuate towns and fight more than 100 wildfires in western Canada fueled by a record-smashing heatwave.

According to wildfire officials, at least 152 fires were active in British Columbia, 89 of them sparked in the last two days. Most were caused by lightning strikes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met in the afternoon with an incident response group that included several ministers. He said he had already spoken with British Columbia’s premier, as well as local mayors and indigenous chiefs in communities under threat.

“We will be there to help,” he told a news conference.

The response group decided to set up an operations center in Edmonton to “provide support across the region as needed,” said Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan.

He also said that armed forces will be positioned across the region to provide logistical assistance “if requested.” The military resources would include military helicopters and possibly Hercules turboprop transport planes.

“The dry conditions and the extreme heat in British Columbia are unprecedented,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. “These wildfires show that we are in the earliest stages of what promises to be a long and challenging summer.”

Roughly 1,000 people have already fled the wildfires in British Columbia, and authorities are searching for many who have gone missing.

The village of Lytton, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Vancouver, was evacuated Wednesday night because of a fire that flared up suddenly and spread quickly.

The fire came a day after the village set a Canadian record-high temperature on Tuesday of 49.6 degrees Celsius (121 degrees Fahrenheit).

– ‘Unprecedented’ deaths –

Late Friday, the British Columbia province medical examiner’s office said there had been 719 deaths in the past week, an “unprecedented number.” This provisional death toll is “three times more” than the average number of deaths recorded over this period under normal circumstances.

“It is believed likely the extreme weather BC has experienced in the past week is a significant contributing factor to the increased number of deaths,” Lisa Lapointe, the province’s chief coroner, said in a statement.

Lytton resident Jeff Chapman told the CBC he witnessed his parents die in the fire that engulfed the town.

With only minutes to react, the elderly couple sought shelter from the smoke and flames in a trench in their backyard, as Chapman ran for safety at nearby rail tracks.

From that vantage, he said he saw the fires sweep across and destroy most of the town.

His distressed voice could be heard pleading for help over the crackling flames in a video on CBC. The ground, he said, was too hot to go back for his parents.

“Today our thoughts are mostly with families that are grieving, that are facing terrible loss,” said Trudeau during his press conference.

“But of course, we also have to reflect on the fact that extreme weather events are getting more frequent and climate change has a significant role to play in that.”

Meanwhile, a heat wave that stretched at the beginning of the week from the US state of Oregon to Canada’s Arctic territories has started moving eastward, late Thursday touching parts of Ontario in central Canada.

British Columbia also warned Friday of flooding from melting mountain snow caps and glaciers under the heat dome, which occurs when hot air is trapped by high pressure fronts, heating the ground.

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