This handout photo shows the town of Fort Smith, Canada during the wildfires, on August 13, 2023. AFP
The crisis in the town of Yellowknife is the newest chapter of a terrible summer for wildfires in Canada, as flames spread quickly across the country, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate and charring large swathes of land.
More than 1,000 wildfires are currently burning across the vast country, including about 230 in the Northwest Territories, in Canada's taste of a very hot and destructive summer in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
"Unfortunately, our wildfire situation has taken another turn for the worse with a fire burning west of Yellowknife now representing a real threat to the city," Shane Thompson, the Northwest Territories' environment minister, told a news conference.
He ordered the city's nearly 20,000 residents to leave by noon Friday. There is only one highway open to the south. Commercial and military flights were also being arranged.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Ottawa would "assist however we can."
The wildfire as of late Wednesday was within 17 kilometers (11 miles) of Yellowknife, which is the regional capital.
"I want to stress that the city is not in immediate danger," Thompson said.
But he added: "Without rain, it is possible (the fire) will reach the city outskirts by the weekend."
"You put yourself and others at risk if you choose to stay later," he said.
Yellowknife declared an emergency earlier this week, which was soon expanded across the huge northern territory as firefighters were forced to pull back in some areas.
Strong winds have stoked the flames, and several towns and Indigenous communities are already under evacuation orders.
Largest ever evacuation
In what had already been declared the Northwest Territories' largest ever evacuation, Yellowknife's evacuation now means half the population of the near-Arctic territory will soon be displaced.
On Monday, the Canadian military started airlifting residents of many smaller communities in the Northwest Territories after roads were engulfed in flames. For many, it was the second time in recent months that residents were forced to leave their homes.
Separated by several hundreds of kilometers, most of the villages in the region are difficult to evacuate by land, officials said.
Images shared on social media and on Canadian television showed an orange smokey haze over the region, large swaths of blackened forests, and melted headlights and peeled paint from the heat on those cars and trucks that made it through to safety before several roads became undrivable.
A man named Jordan Evoy told AFP this week he'd been forced to turn back after fires jumped across the highway in front of him in "the scariest moment of my life."
"Flames were jumping over my truck" and the 28-year-old said he worried its tires would melt in the heat. "The asphalt was on fire."
"The wildfires situation in the Northwest Territories continues to be critical," wildfire official Mike Westwick said Wednesday.
Thick smoke, he said, was hampering efforts to beat back the wildfires advancing on Yellowknife.
This season, megafires have spread across Canada with remarkable intensity, forcing 168,000 people to flee their homes and scorching 13.5 million hectares (33.4 million acres) -- almost twice the area of the last record of 7.3 million hectares, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
Four people have died so far in this year's wildfires.
In the Northwest Territories, more than 20,000 square kilometres of forest have burned.
Meanwhile in westernmost British Columbia province, also hard hit by forest fires, a heatwave sent temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) this week.
Temperatures, however, are not expected to top a record set in June 2021, when the mercury in Lytton hit 49.6C before the village was destroyed days later by a fire that killed two residents.