FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – A raging wildfire has forced almost 30,000 people from their homes in the northern Alberta oilsands city of Fort McMurray.
Scott Long of Alberta Emergency Management says the flames have burned a number of structures, but he can’t say how many.
The fire worsened dramatically in a short time Tuesday and many residents had little notice to flee.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the province was doing all it could to ensure everyone’s safety. She said she was looking into the possibility of an airlift for residents with medical issues.
“As frustrating and as scary as it is to leave your home, it’s not as frustrating and scary as to find that you’re trapped,” Notley said in a late-afternoon update.
“It is absolutely important that people follow instructions and evacuate as requested.”
The wildfire, whipped by unpredictable winds on a day when the temperature reached 32 C, pushed billowing clouds of dark smoke into the sky and spit ash down on residents. Towers of bright-orange flames cut through the clouds and skipped over tinder-dry forest.
“If you just walk outside, you feel it (ash) falling on you. You see it floating in the air. I can take a broom and brush it off my deck,” said resident Mark Durocher.
Durocher, 25, described the air as “thick.”
“You can taste it and feel it when you’re walking around. It feels really heavy and you can taste just how ‘woody’ it is in the air.”
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 with radio station KAOS.
Highway 63, the main way into Fort McMurray from the south, was closed after flames jumped the road.
Coun. Keith McGrath described the situation as “dire.”
Another radio reporter, J.D. Deraadt, said the fire flared up suddenly.
“I’m feeling nervous. It’s a bit of a surreal thing to see it go from nothing to big. It’s very disheartening.”
Pictures posted on Twitter showed long lines of traffic and skies darkened by thick smoke as flames licked the edges of roads.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, had an overall population of 125,000 in 2015. That included a temporary “shadow” population — many of whom live in work camps — of 43,000.
Fort McMurray is the capital of Alberta’s oilsands region and sits about 450 kilometres north of Edmonton.
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.
Sandra Hickey, who lives in a neighbourhood under an evacuation order, said the situation changed quite quickly.
“When I got in the shower earlier today the sky was blue. When I got out. The sky was black,” Hickey said. “It was fast. The wind picked up and changed direction.”
Fire officials had already warned earlier in the day that rising temperatures and low humidity could help the fire grow.
“Don’t get into a false sense of security,” fire chief Darby Allen said during a media briefing before things worsened. “We are in for a rough day.”
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat ranging from very high to extreme.
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 that can dump more than 2,000 litres of water at a time.
Crews were busy cutting down a line of unburned trees in the path of the flames to deny the fire fuel. Air tankers were dropping carpets of fire retardant while other aircraft released water.
Bernie Schmitte, an Alberta wildfire manager, said spruce and pine trees growing in the area burn easily and hot. He said changing wind conditions were also a concern.
“It is going to challenge us throughout the day,” he said. “At this point we cannot say that there is any part or portion of the line that is 100 per cent secure or contained.”