Canada wildfires
Property and homes razed by a wildfire in Celista, British Columbia, Canada, on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Record-breaking wildfires in Canada have scorched an area larger than Greece, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate. Image Credit: Bloomberg

West Kelowna, Canada: Cooling weather on Monday gave firefighters a slight edge against what the prime minister described as "apocalyptic" wildfires blazing across western Canada, after tens of thousands were evacuated or put on alert.

Large parts of the scenic Okanagan Valley, including the towns of Kelowna and neighboring West Kelowna in British Columbia, are threatened by fires.

Around 30,000 people in the province where 385 fires are now burning - out of almost 1,040 nationwide - remain under evacuation orders.

Many of the fires remain out of control, but officials told a news conference Monday the weather was now on their side.

"I'm pleased to say that yesterday was another good day and we continue to see progress made on these wildfires," Kelowna city councillor Loyal Wooldridge said, pointing to no new structures lost in the last 24 hours.

"We're not expecting any rapid increases in fire behaviour or spread of any of these fires," added British Columbia senior fire official Jared Schroeder.

Temperatures in the major wine-producing region around Kelowna were expected to stay cool through Monday, creeping into the low 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) in the afternoon.

There was also some rain forecast starting Tuesday.

Officials said it was too soon to start planning a staged return of evacuees as thick smoke continued to choke the area.

The region is also littered with debris, including trees ripped out of the ground by powerful winds, and downed power lines. Several houses have been reduced to rubble and street signs have melted in the heat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at a cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to discuss the national fire crisis, said Canadians "are watching in horror the images of apocalyptic devastation."

"It's a scary and heartbreaking time," he said as "people flee for their lives and worry about their communities."

This summer in Canada, more than 14 million hectares (34.6 million acres) have burned - roughly the size of Greece and almost twice the area of the last record of 7.3 million hectares. Four people have died.

Scientists say human-caused global warming is exacerbating natural hazards, making them both more frequent and more deadly.

'Horrible to breathe'

Kelowna, a town of 150,000, has become the latest population center hit.

"It has been horrible to spend the week with this air. It is horrible to breathe," Mary Hicks, a 29-year-old IT worker who had been visiting the region from Montreal, told AFP on Sunday. "I really want to go home."

But she was stuck for now, with her return flight canceled. The airport hopes to resume flights this week, depending on visibility.

"When I had to pack, in the moment I was crying, crying, crying," said April, 39, who with her two small children fled her home east of Kelowna and was staying in a hotel outside the city.

On the other side of Okanagan Lake, at least 50 homes on the outskirts of West Kelowna have been destroyed. The count is expected to soar as crews assessing damage push deeper "into areas where the fires burned hottest," local fire chief Jason Brolund said.

"My sister's boyfriend's house has burnt down. He lives in the West Kelowna side and it was so windy that the fire was spreading and they couldn't control it," said Bogi Bagosi, a 16-year-old student.

"It's kind of heartbreaking to watch the city burn down. They are doing their best to stop it but it is not enough."

The confusion and terror of the fires and evacuations have been compounded by Meta's blocking of Canadian news on Facebook and Instagram, in response to a new law requiring digital giants to pay publishers for articles.

"It is inconceivable that a company like Facebook is choosing to put corporate profits ahead of (safety)... and keeping Canadians informed about things like wildfires," Trudeau raged on Monday.

Cooler with rain 'a bit of help'

In Canada's far north, crews held back a massive fire threatening Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. They were helped by rain over the weekend.

Yellowknife - now a ghost town, except for emergency personnel who stayed behind to build fire barriers and lay out sprinklers - and many small communities in the near-Arctic region have been evacuated, leaving two thirds of the population of the Northwest Territories displaced.

"With a little bit of help from the weather over the past few days and a lot of good firefighting work we've been able to keep this thing at bay for the time being," local fire information officer Mike Westwick told a briefing late Sunday.