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A town in western Canada prepares for a possible ‘last stand’ as wildfires rage in British Columbia

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FORT NELSON, British Columbia (AP) — An intense wildfire could reach a town in western Canada this week, fire experts and officials warned, based on forecasts of winds that have fueled the out-of-control blaze, which has forced the evacuation of thousands of people.

The British Columbia Wildfire Service said the wildfire was burning 2½ kilometers (around 1½ miles) northwest of Fort Nelson. More than 4,700 people have evacuated after an order was issued on Friday.

Bowinn Ma, the province’s minister of emergency management, said that drought conditions have persisted since last year and no rain is in the forecast.

“We are extremely concerned,” she said. “It is extremely uncommon for us to have so many on a evacuation order.”

Cliff Chapman, the service’s director of operations, said they were fortunate that stronger winds didn’t materialize overnight, but said that winds were expected to continue to blow west over the next day or two.

“We did not see the winds through the evening,” Chapman said.

He said that helicopters and bulldozers are being used to fight the wildfire, while most ground crews focus on protecting structures.

Fire crews and emergency workers were preparing for a “last stand” if the fire advances into the town, said Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality based in Fort Nelson. Fraser said that less than 100 people remained in town. The wildfire service encouraged those left to leave.

The wildfire had swelled to nearly 53 square kilometers (20 square miles).

The service’s fire behavior specialist, Ben Boghean, said that the extreme fire behavior — made worse by years of drought and a below-normal snowpack this past winter — could threaten the crews that have been fighting the nearby Parker Lake wildfire.

In 2023, Canada experienced a record number of wildfires that caused choking smoke in parts of the U.S. and forced more than 235,000 Canadians to evacuate their communities. There were no civilian casualties, but at least four firefighters died.

A smoky haze from the Canadian wildfires hung over parts of the U.S. states of Minnesota and Wisconsin on Monday, pushing air quality down to unhealthy levels for the second consecutive day.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued its first air quality alert of the season for the entire state on Sunday, extending until noon on Monday.

Smoke from the fires has prompted air quality alerts in Canada spanning from British Columbia to Manitoba.

Fort Nelson is in the far northeastern corner of British Columbia, about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from Vancouver. Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson Indian Reserve have a combined population of around 3,400 people.

The blaze is one of several out-of-control wildfires in Western Canada threatening communities in provinces such as Alberta and Manitoba.

Fires burned near Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie in Alberta, while officials in Manitoba have evacuated about 500 people from Cranberry Portage, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) northwest of Winnipeg.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta has told Fort McMurray residents to be ready to evacuate on short notice. Schools were still open Monday.

Predicted light showers near the oil sands region of Fort McMurray are expected to help lower fire activity and give crews a jump on containing the flames. Fort McMurray’s population is about 68,000.

A major wildfire there in 2016 destroyed roughly 2,400 homes.

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Rob Gillies in Toronto, and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, contributed reporting.

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