Fort McMurray wildfire to grow, no relief from weather


FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – The Alberta government expects to complete moving people through Fort McMurray on Saturday to the south side of a massive and growing wildfire that is threatening the city.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says officials expect the fire to possibly double in size on Saturday and reach the boundary with Saskatchewan to the east.

“In no way is this fire under control,” she told a briefing.

The government says the area damaged by fire or still burning had grown Friday night to 1,560 square kilometres.

Notley says the fire is burning away from communities, but weather conditions made fighting the fire more difficult on Saturday.

Firefighters continued working to protect the downtown and homes in Fort McMurray and held the line for a second straight day, Notley said.

The premier said the gas supply has been turned off in the city and the power grid has been damaged.

Water in the city isn’t drinkable and hazardous material will have to be cleaned up before residents can return, although the government has begun preliminary planning for people to return.

Syncrude oil facilities in northern Alberta were evacuated Saturday as the company decided to move its employees as a precaution.

Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency says a Suncor facility was also evacuated on Friday.

No new figures were released Saturday on the number of structures that have been damaged in Fort McMurray. Earlier this week the government said 1,600 buildings were destroyed.

Chad Morrison with Alberta Wildfires said damage to buildings in the community of Anzac was not as great as first feared. Twelve structures were damaged, said Morrison, six fewer than originally reported.

“The good news is, it continues to move away from the community and oilsands facilities,” he said.

The weather could also improve in the coming days with cooler temperatures and a chance of showers, he added.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the fire situation in the area area remained “unpredictable and dangerous.”

Firefighters from other provinces were being brought in to spell off those who have been battling what he calls “this beast of a fire” for a week, he told a news conference in Regina.

Goodale said plans are in place to spell off firefighters who have been battling the blaze this week.

Eighty firefighters from Ontario have already arrived. Goodale said another 44 are on their way from Quebec and 22 from New Brunswick. Equipment, such as pumps, hoses and tankers, are also coming from other provinces.

“What we’re trying to do, with the co-operation of other provinces and territories, is bring in rotations of other firefighters that can give them a break.”

Goodale also said the convoy moving people who have been taking shelter at oilsands work camps north of Fort McMurray continued and about 7,500 people were moved through the city to the south on Friday.

Officials have stressed the wildfire that forced 80,000 people from their homes remained out of control and was likely to burn for weeks.

In all, 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. Others went to Calgary.

The RCMP caught the first — and so far only — looter in Fort McMurray on Friday. Mounties said a local man was arrested after they responded to a break and enter call. A police dog was used to track him down.

“Crime is not rampant in the community,” RCMP Insp. Kevin Kunetzki said Saturday.

Officers have been finding people in Fort McMurray who did not comply with the mandatory evacuation order.

One was an elderly man who was found in his home, with his dog. Patrols also came across a family of five, including three young children, who didn’t leave because they didn’t think they were in danger.

Mounties escorted them all out of town.

Kunetzki said the RCMP had checked about 30 per cent of the homes in the city for stragglers.

Most of the people they have found did not have the means to get out of the city, he said.

“The numbers are not great, but they still exist and are out there, and obviously we are concerned about their health with the amount of smoke there is in the community,” he said.

Visibility is at times less than 10 metres, said Kunetzki, adding the smoke has been so thick that he sometimes has barely been able to see in front of his car when driving.

Alberta is now under a provincewide fire ban. Notley has urged people to stay out of the forests altogether, and the province ordered a ban on recreational use of off-highway vehicles.


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