Mandatory evacuation orders issued for 80,000 residents in north of Alberta province, with reports entire neighbourhoods destroyed by wildfire
By Nicky Woolf and agencies
The entire population of a northern Alberta city has been ordered to evacuate as a wildfire whipped by high winds engulfed homes and sent ash raining down on residents.
All of Fort McMurray, with the exception of Parson’s Creek, was under a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday, said Robin Smith, press secretary for the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo in the Canadian province.
More than 80,000 residents were being directed to evacuation centres outside Fort McMurray, but journeys were made difficult as the main road out of the city – Highway 63 – was licked by flames.
One evacuation centre, on an island in the Athabasca river, had filled up, Smith said. Entire neighbourhoods were destroyed, emergency officials said, but there were no reports of injuries.
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More than 100 provincial and municipal firefighters were brought in, with helicopters and aircraft used to drop water and fire retardant, while bulldozers were digging firebreaks. Overnight on Tuesday, fires continued to burn in several locations across the city’s south.
Alberta premier Rachel Notley called it the biggest evacuation in the history of the province and said officials were doing all they could to ensure the safety of all residents, including the possibility of an airlift for residents with medical issues. All hospital patients were evacuated.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said the government would offer support to the city.
Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta’s opposition party and a resident of the city, said much of downtown Fort McMurray was facing destruction: “My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed.”
Russell Thomas, a resident and former municipal councillor, said he had left the town around noon for work and things had looked “perfectly fine”. By the time he attempted to return, he said, it was “like the apocalypse”. Separated from his family, who were evacuating north, he turned back and fled south.
Tonight I spoke with Premier Notley and offered our government’s support to the people of Fort McMurray. We stand ready to help. #ymmfire
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) May 4, 2016
Soon after he left the area, a gas station he had been near exploded. One hundred yards from the flames on the highway, he said: “The heat was intense because of the wind.”
A local radio reporter said a trailer park that had been evacuated on Monday was on fire, and flames were advancing toward businesses.
“It’s chaos on the roads. People are panicking. It’s gridlock on the roads. Flames are right next to a gas station,” said Carina Van Heerde on radio station KAOS.
Pictures posted on Twitter showed long lines of traffic and skies darkened by thick smoke as flames licked the edges of roads. Drivers trapped on Highway 63 were told that unless they were in imminent danger they should stay where they were and await police officers.
Facebook activated its safety check feature to encourage Fort McMurray residents to let friends and family know they were safe. The Alberta government also asked those who had been evacuated to contact officials to confirm their location.
Fort McMurray is the hub of Alberta’s oil sands region. Oil sands work camps were being pressed into service to house evacuees as the raging wildfire emptied the city. Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city’s south side.
Crews had seemed to be making progress controlling the blaze, burning since the weekend, but the situation worsened quickly on Tuesday. By mid afternoon, people from three neighbourhoods were told to leave immediately.
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat is ranging from very high to extreme.
“The way things have gone in the last two days is, once night falls and the temperature drops, things slow down,” Smith said. “We have to stop at 9pm because of provincial regulations, so we’re pushing through until then.”
— Briar Stewart (@briarstewart) May 3, 2016
Carol Christian’s home was in one of the neighbourhoods under the order to evacuate. She said it was scary as she drove to an evacuation centre with her son and cat.
“When you leave … it’s an overwhelming feeling to think that you’ll never see your house again,” she said. “It was absolutely horrifying when we were sitting there in traffic. You look up and then you watch all the trees candle-topping … up the hills where you live and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. We got out just in time.’”
The Alberta government banned all open fires except in designated camping sites in forested areas due to the threat. There were about 30 fires burning in the province.
The province was calling in more reinforcements to Fort McMurray, including 100 more firefighters and a giant helicopter able to dump more than 2,000 litres of water at a time.
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