Wildfire guts large swath of Canadian city; 80,000 flee

Canadian authorities are telling all of Fort McMurray’s 80,000 residents to evacuate due to a massive wildfire that is said to be destroying parts of the city. Fort McMurray is an oil center in western Canada. (May 4) AP A raging wildfire, whipped by strong winds from a cold front that arrived Wednesday, has destroyed 1,600 structures in the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray and driven out almost the entire population of 83,000 people.

It’s the biggest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history, according to said Bruce Macnab, the head of wildland fire information systems at Natural Resources Canada. As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, 25,000 acres have been scorched.

Authorities from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said 80% of homes in the city’s Beacon Hill suburb in the south end have been leveled. Firefighters have been forced to focus on saving critical infrastructure like the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only way into the city from the south.

In the neighborhood of Timberlea, flames destroyed a dozen trailers on one street alone.

The city was virtually devoid of human life as residents heeded Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Officials estimated 17,000 people fled to industrial sites to the north, while another 35,000 headed south, including 18,000 people bound for Edmonton, 250 miles away, the Edmonton Journal reports.

“The wildfire has entered the Fort McMurray townsite,” the Alberta provincial government said in a statement. “Wildfire continues to be a threat due to hot, dry conditions and wind across the province. This area is not safe to enter.”Traffic lines the highway as residents leave Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on May 3, 2016 as a wildfire besieged the city. (Photo: Jason Franson, Canadian Press/AP)
Amid the mass relocation, hundreds of trucks, cars, motorcycles and mobile homes were forced to pull over because of engines choked by smoke or after running low on fuel, Fort Murray Today reports. Many drivers sat dazed with others in tears.

Police wearing breathing masks directed traffic and patrolled the highways with stocks of gasoline for stranded cars.

Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta’s opposition party and a resident of the city, said much of downtown Fort McMurray is being destroyed by fire, but the fire chief said there had mostly been spot fires that were extinguished, the Associated Press reports. “My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed,” Jean said.Feeding off dry conditions and high temperatures, the fire, which had largely hovered on the outskirts since the weekend, leapt into the city Tuesday, pushing flames into high-density subdivisions. Officials said the blaze stormed along a ravine and roared into the city and the race was on to get out.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known he called it “absolutely devastating” and said there’s a loss on a scale that’s hard to imagine. Trudeau said his thoughts are with Alberta and said he’s offered the premier the federal government’s full support. He encouraged Canadians to support friends and donate to the Red Cross.

“We will be there for them,” Trudeau said, adding that the military aircraft are being mobilized to help fight the blaze.

Blistering heat exacerbated the fire Tuesday, as Fort McMurray, Alberta, shattered a 71-year-old record high, hitting 90 degrees. The old record for May 3 was 82 degrees, according to the Government of Canada.

The average high temperature for the area at this time of year is in the upper 50s, according to weather.com meteorologist Tom Moore.

As flames leaped over roads, and air tankers and choppers buzzed overhead, burning debris landed in the patch of bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to leave the city. “It became chaotic with vehicles trying to swerve and pull out into the ditch,” said resident Jordan Stuffco, the AP reports.By mid-afternoon Tuesday, nearly half the city’s residents had evacuated and three hours later the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo announced all of Fort McMurray had to leave, the newspaper says.

“We are firefighting as we speak and homes are on fire as we speak,” Wood Buffalo fire chief Darby Allen said at a 10 p.m. news conference Tuesday. “It’s not a question of how far away it is any more, it’s here.”

Shams Rehman, his wife and three children, grabbed the title and mortgage papers for their home in Fort McMurray, then jumped in their car and left, The Globe and Mail reports.

“There was smoke everywhere and it was raining ash. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said after his family reached an evacuation center in the resort town of Lac La Biche, according to the newspaper. “I just wanted to get out of that mess. I just wanted to get my family to somewhere safe.”

Army and air force troops were expected by the end of the week at the request of local authorities.

Fort McMurray is the heart of Canada’s oil sands region. The Alberta oil sands are the third largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city’s south side.

Allen said they are trying to maintain the crucial infrastructure in the city, particularly the vital bridge over the Athabasca. “We appreciate that some of you have lost properties. We have people working here right now that have lost property, too,” he said.Medical staffers, who were moved to Noralta Lodge, 16 miles north of Fort McMurray, were able to respond to a woman in labor.

Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake saluted the news on Twitter: “Time for good news. I hear a baby (maybe 2) was born tonight and delivered by @NoraltaLodge! Full service evacuation rocks! #bewellbabies”

Carol Christian’s home was in one of the neighborhoods under the order to leave. She said it was scary as she drove to an evacuation center with her son and cat, the AP reports.

“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.’”Oil sands work camps were being pressed into service to house evacuees as the raging wildfire emptied the city. Officials were also evacuating non-essential staff at Suncor’s base plant 18 miles from the city.

Will Gibson, a spokesman for Syncrude, which has a plant north of the town, was himself one of the evacuees heading north away from the flames.

Gibson said he had to flee his neighborhood via a grass embankment because the fire had already cut off the road at both ends. “I left my neighborhood and there were houses on fire,” he said. “I don’t know if and when I’ll be going back.”

A very early spring and lack of snow has led to an unusually active year for wildfires across Canada so far this year, said Macnab.

So far, about 30,000 acres have burned in Alberta, including the 25,000 in this fire, he said. That’s about 10 times the average for that province alone.

Nationally, roughly 41,000 acres have burned across Canada, which is three times the average. “It’s been quite an early start to the fire season,” he said. Usually the peak months for fires in Canada are June, July and August, Macnab added.

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