FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Displaced Fort McMurray residents got a sobering drive-by view of their burned city Friday in a convoy that was moving evacuees south to reunite with families and friends.
Officials said shifting winds were giving the embattled northern Alberta city a break, but they added the fire that forced 80,000 people from their homes remained out of control and was likely to burn for weeks.
The sprawling fire in northeastern Alberta reached 1,000 square kilometres — bigger than the size of Calgary. Officials said they expected it would double over the weekend.
In Edmonton, Premier Rachel Notley announced the government will provide financial help to evacuees for immediate needs. Adults are to receive $1,250 each and dependents $500. The cost is estimated at $100 million.
The first convoy of 50 vehicles drove through the oilsands city from the north at about 6 a.m. It was escorted by the RCMP and a police helicopter in the air to warn of any renewed fire danger.
About 1,200 vehicles had passed through by late afternoon despite a one-hour interruption due to heavy smoke.
Jim Dunstan was in the convoy with his wife, Tracy, and two young sons.
“It looked like a war zone,” Dunstan said at a rest stop south of the fire-ravaged city.
“It was shocking to see the damaged cars all burned on the side of the road. It made you feel lucky to get out of there.”
His wife said they escaped Tuesday through smoke and flames, but soon ran out of gas.
“It was pretty scary, especially when you have kids. It was so smoky it hurt my eyes,” she said.
“We are better now that we are out.”
Notley said the plan was to get 500 vehicles out by ground and 5,500 people by air on Friday. Another 4,000 were to go Saturday. About 7,000 left by air Thursday.
“The city of Fort McMurray is not safe to return to, and this will be true for a significant period of time,” she told a briefing in Edmonton.
The road took convoys past blocks largely reduced to grey wastelands of charred concrete and ash, a gutted Super 8 motel and a levelled gas station.
More than 20,000 displaced residents had been living in oilsands work camps since Tuesday after the blaze cut the main road through Fort McMurray and sent residents fleeing either north or south.
Those who managed to escape south settled in hotels, campgrounds, with friends or at temporary reception centres.
About 1,800 were being housed at the Northlands Expo Centre in Edmonton. A city official said one challenge was dealing with stress caused by thousands bunking on cots in one big hall. People staying there were likely to remain for at least two weeks or more, he said.
Donations continued to stream in from around the country.
The Red Cross reported about $30 million had been donated for victim relief. The B.C. government pledged $300,000 and Saskatchewan put up $250,000. The federal government has promised to match Red Cross donations.
There was no update on the number of structures burned, which stood at 1,600 Wednesday, mainly in city neighbourhoods to the south and southwest.
Chad Morrison, Alberta’s senior wildfire manager, said critical infrastructure — the downtown, the water treatment plant, the hospital and the airport — remained intact.
The blaze also hit the evacuated village of Anzac to the south of the city late Thursday, hitting between 18 and 20 structures.
Morrison said winds were moving the blaze away from Fort McMurray.
“This is a dynamic, challenging, extreme fire, so many things can happen. But at this point the prediction over the next two days is for the fire to move away to the northeast,” he said.
Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said there were almost 500 firefighters in and around Fort McMurray supported by 11 helicopters, 12 pieces of heavy equipment, and 16 water bombers.
The cause of the blaze has yet to be determined.
Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency confirmed a few people had defied the evacuation order and stayed in Fort McMurray’s downtown, but said there were no reports of looting.
However, RCMP said in a news release Friday that one local man had been arrested in a home in the city after they responded to a break and enter call. A police dog was used to track him down. RCMP said it’s the only theft report they’ve received.
On Thursday, officers located an elderly man in his home and got him and his dog to safety. And a family of five, including three young children, was located during a door-to-door canvass. RCMP said the family had not complied with the mandatory evacuation order due to their belief that they were not in danger. They and their dog were subsequently evacuated.
Police are also patrolling areas frequented by the homeless to assist them in evacuating to safety.
“People need to understand that evacuation orders are issued for a reason, and that not leaving puts them and emergency responders at unnecessary risk,” said RCMP Insp. Gibson Glavin.
A provincewide fire ban was still in effect Friday. Larivee also ordered a ban on recreational use of off-highway vehicles, while Notley urged Albertans to avoid forests altogether.
Morrison said a lack of rain baking the forest to combustible conditions contributed to the power of the Fort McMurray blaze.
“This is an extreme, rare, rare fire event,” said Morrison, who added it wouldn’t end anytime soon.
“Even once we get rain, there’s still going to be a lot of fire out there and a lot of work. We’re going to be here for weeks and weeks.”
Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, said she was heartened the resilience of residents.
“I’ve seen people who have lost everything break down … and then the next morning you see them and there’s smiles. They realize that they’ve got their lives, they’ve got their family and they’ve got the opportunity to rebuild,” said Blake.
“You see children who are completely oblivious to it, and it’s for the children that we all need to stay strong.”
— With files from Dean Bennett and Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton