FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Emergency officials confirmed late Tuesday that whole neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray have been destroyed by a raging forest fire that sliced through the middle of the northern oilsands hub city.
Tens of thousands were sent fleeing in both directions, and the entire community of 80,000 was ordered evacuated.
Officials warn it could only get even worse today.
Forestry manager Bernie Schmitte told a late-night news conference that today’s forecast calls for very high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.
At the same news conference, fire chief Darby Allen said there were no reports of serious injuries, adding that military assistance is expected to arrive in the Alberta city within a couple of days
In the meantime, Highway 63, the main route to the city from the south, has been clogged with vehicles as residents flee their city.
The blaze began started Sunday and it appeared firefighters would get it under control yesterday morning, but the winds shifted quickly pushed the flames along a ravine and into the city.
Numerous communities and facilities in the surrounding area have opened their doors for the evacuees and work camps associated with oilsands projects have been quickly prepared for Fort McMurray residents.
Politicians of all stripes have sent their condolences and words of support to the city, including Alberta’s Opposition leader.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean — the member of the legislature for the area– says his home along with businesses that have been in his family for three generations were lost.
“I’m just hoping that the home I grew up in isn’t, but I’m afraid it probably is.”
Fire chief Allen said they did not have an estimate of the number of homes destroyed, but said the fire is burning in several areas in the city’s south end and had destroyed a mobile home park.
He also said they are trying to maintain the crucial infrastructure in the city, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only route to the city from the south.
Officials said flames stormed along a ravine and roared into the city and the race was on to get out.
Pictures and video on social media depicted a hellish scene of fountains of flame.
There was fire jumping roads, burning debris pitched into the paths of cars as frantic residents, lined up bumper to bumper, scrambled and fumbled to find their way through the thick grey haze.
“It became chaotic with vehicles trying to swerve and pull out into the ditch,” said resident Jordan Stuffco.
Air tankers and helicopters buzzed overhead.
“(With) the heat from the oncoming smoke and the flames, you could see mini-tornadoes forming near the road. It was something out of an apocalyptic movie.”
The blaze razed homes on the city’s western edge, though it was unclear how many. Officials confirmed some homes in a trailer park were torched.
As the afternoon wore on and the fire intensified, more and more sections of the city were ordered evacuated until the entire community was ordered out after 6 p.m.
Resident Carol Christian drove to an evacuation centre with her son and cat.
“When you leave … it’s an overwhelming feeling to think that you’ll never see your house again,” she said, her voice breaking.
“It was absolutely horrifying when we were sitting there in traffic. You look up and then you watch all the trees candle-topping … up the hills where you live and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. We got out just in time.’ ”
Highway 63, the main way into Fort McMurray from the south, was closed after flames jumped the road. Those who had headed south were told to stay away while those who couldn’t head south headed north.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, speaking to reporters in Edmonton, 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,” said Notley.
“It is absolutely important that people follow instructions and evacuate as requested.”
She said 160 Mounties were on scene trying to get people out.
Officials said there was no word of any injuries or people laid up by smoke inhalation.
Resident Sandra Hickey 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,” said Sandra Hickey, who had to leave her home. “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.
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat ranged from very high to extreme.
Government spokesman Bruce Mayer said a cold front was expected to come through the region by mid- to late-day Wednesday, which would bring with it shifting winds gusting to 50 km/h. He said to expect “a more intense burning day.”
North of Fort McMurray, work camps associated with oilsands projects were being re-purposed to house evacuees.
Notley said the camps have secured spaces for 6,000 people, “but we know we need to find more.”
John Henderson of Edmonton, a scaffolder who was staying at a camp about an hour north of Fort McMurray, said he and the other workers were going to be flown out to make room for the evacuees, most of whom had arrived on buses and were staying in the gymnasium.
“Let’s face it, if things go south — and by south I mean move more north — this isn’t a place you want to be anyways.”
Evacuee Roscoe Sleeth arrived at the Mount Logan Lodge camp with his wife, two children and their two dogs.
He described a harrowing journey trying to get out of their city in a car packed full of their belongings. They first tried to go south on Highway 63, but when they got to the overpass “the flames were right down to the highway and cops were turning people around.”
A third son had managed to make it through before the fire jumped the highway.
“I would guess 30,000 to 70,000 people are going north,” he said. “It was wall to wall traffic going north.”
Sleeth has been through evacuations before, and said it’s “just part of living in the north.”
He shrugged off the possible loss of his home back in Fort McMurray.
“It’s just wood, hay and stubble,” he said. “I got my family out.”
Hayley O’Malley, a construction worker from Edmonton, said Tuesday she was going to head up to Fort McMurray with a group of about 100 friends to help out, adding they would load up with water and food to take to the evacuees.
“I’ll drive north, help out where I can and see what happens,” she said.
However, the Alberta Fire Fighters Association sent out an urgent tweet, pleading with people to stay home.
“We all want to help but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU SELF DEPLOY!”
Fort McMurray is the capital of Alberta’s oilsands region and sits about 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
It was five years ago this month that wildfires destroyed about one-third of the community of Slave Lake, Alta. More than 500 homes and buildings were damaged at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Notley said the Fort McMurray situation rivals the Slave Lake catastrophe.
“In terms of fire this is our biggest fire evacuation,” she said. “This is bigger than Slave Lake.”
— with files from Chris Purdy, Mary-Jo Laforest, Dean Bennett, Jennifer Graham, Geordon Ormand and Gwen Dambrofsky