Fort McMurray fire burns 1,600 structures

Fort McMurray Evacuees

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says a wildfire that is raging around Fort McMurray has burned through roughly 1,600 structures in the city.

“There’s been fairly significant destruction of residences,” she said at a morning briefing in Edmonton.

“We’re looking at roughly 1,600 structures at this point, so we’ve begun conversations with our federal partners about work that will need to be done with respect to restoration and recovery once the fire is brought under control.”

There are no reports of any injuries.

Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen says there are currently no buildings on fire, but he expects that to change.

“This is a nasty, dirty fire. There are certainly areas of the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them and it will find them and it will want to take them,” Allen told another update in Fort McMurray.

“Our challenge today is to try and prevent that and prevent anymore structural loss.”

Fire crews are expecting another day of scorching hot temperatures, low relative humidity and strong, fickle winds. Allen said a cold front is expected to move in later in the day, but that could bring in a new enemy — lightning.

The wildfire is still out of control and has burned through about 75 square kilometres.

The wildfire, whipped by fierce winds, roared into the southwest corner of the city Tuesday afternoon. It torched homes in three subdivisions and destroyed vehicles, gas stations and a motel.

All residents — about 80,000 people — were ordered out, and fled north or south as fire cut the main road through the city.

“As far as we are aware, everyone is out,” Robin Smith with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city, said Wednesday.

“We don’t have anyone who’s decided to hang around and stay in town. We have RCMP patrols that are regularly looping the neighbourhoods to make sure there’s no one straggling.”

A bumper-to-bumper gridlock exodus continued on Highway 63, the main artery south.

“There’s a lot of vehicles on the side of the road,” said RCMP Sgt. John Spaans of Boyle, a small town about two-thirds of the way from the oilsands capital to Edmonton.

“It’s tough to say if these people have broken down and pulled over, run out of gas, or simply parked and camped. But there are a lot of vehicles that are in the ditches, medians, along the shoulders.”

Long traffic bottlenecks were also forming at the communities of Wandering River and Grasslands, two of the first stops along Highway 63 heading south. The municipality was advising drivers who had run out of gas to stay put.

Alberta Transportation said on Twitter it was escorting a fuel tanker up Highway 63 to assist stranded motorists.

Fire refugees were recounting tales of narrow escapes.

Shawn Brett said he was at home when his friends called him and urging him to leave. Brett said when he opened the door of his house, smoke and flames were all around the neighbourhood, so he jumped on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and made his way through a traffic jam out of the city.

“I didn’t have time for nothing. I literally drove through the flames. I had ashes hitting my face and the heat from the fire was that bad,” he said. “Everything was jammed. It was nothing but the biggest chaos I’d ever seen.”

Overnight, firefighters tried to maintain crucial infrastructure in the city, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63.

Notley said about 10,000 evacuees had fled north to stay at oilsands industrial camps that have opened their doors, although Smith put that number at 20,000.

Another 35,000 were streaming south to the communities of Anzac, Lac La Biche and Edmonton. Some were going as far as Calgary.

By late Tuesday and early Wednesday some began trickling in to temporary shelters at a convention centre in Edmonton’s north end.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will provide all possible assistance to Alberta. The prime minister said Wednesday he had already spoken to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to offer his government’s “total support.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, in a conference call from Germany, said a formal request for assistance has been received from the Alberta government.

In Fort McMurray, officials began tallying up the initial losses.

The Beacon Hill suburb in the south end had the worst damage with about 80 per cent of homes destroyed.