FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says a wildfire has already torched 1,600 structures in Fort McMurray and is ready to renew its attack in another day of scorching heat and capricious winds.
“There’s been fairly significant destruction of residences,” Notley said at a morning briefing in Edmonton.
There have been no reports of injuries or deaths, but the wildfire is still out of control.
Notley’s officials say the outlook remains grim for the northern oilsands hub city, which was ordered evacuated on Tuesday, forcing 80,000 residents to flee north and south.
Chad Morrison, manager of wildfire prevention, says the 75-square- kilometre fire, which has been chewing up sections of the south and southwest portions of the city, is expected to shift north to hit new neighbourhoods as winds pick up in the hot, dry conditions.
“We expect it be a worse fire day than yesterday, with the big issue being the winds,” said Morrison.
Scott Long with Alberta Emergency Management says crews are doing their best but admitted Wednesday: “It is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town.”
Notley said she would be heading to Fort McMurray by mid-day to meet with officials, survey the scene and thank first responders.
She said plans have already started for the time when Fort McMurray begins to rebuild.
“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.”
Mayor Melissa Blake said the city has been “fighting an uphill battle for a long time” due to its extreme rate of growth fuelled by oilsands development, so citizens are ready for what lies ahead.
“We will hope to follow in the shadow of Slave Lake in our perseverance and resolve,” Blake said. “And as we look to the future, this is still a place of incredible strength, resiliency and vibrancy.
“We’ll come back some day.”
The wildfire roared into the southwest corner of the city Tuesday afternoon. It engulfed homes in three subdivisions and destroyed vehicles, gas stations and a motel. The Beacon Hill suburb in the south end had the worst damage with about 80 per cent of homes destroyed.
Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen said early Wednesday there were no buildings on fire, but he expected 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,” he told another briefing in Fort McMurray.
Allen said a cold front was expected to move in later in the day, but that could bring with it a new enemy — lightning.
Robin Smith with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city, said it was believed everyone was out of the city.
“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,” said Smith.
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.”
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.”
Notley said about 10,000 evacuees have fled north to stay at oilsands industrial camps, 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.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will provide all possible assistance to Alberta. The prime minister said he had already spoken to 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.