Residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta—home to 83,000 people—have been ordered to leave as an out-of-control wildfire swept into the city. It’s the largest fire evacuation in the province’s history.
Fire officials in Fort McMurray are bracing themselves for what will undoubtedly be another challenging day. Fueled by record-breaking temperatures that hit 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), the fire swept into the city yesterday around 6:20 pm. A mandatory evacuation order was issued for the entire city, which is located 270 miles (435 km) north of Edmonton and is home to thousands of oilsands workers.
Fires could be seen burning through suburbs on Tuesday afternoon as the flames made their way towards the downtown area. Walls of flame erupted along a highway out of Fort McMurray as panicked residents plotted their safest routes out of town. Residents could hear the popping noises of exploding fuel tanks as they made their way down Highway 63. Emergency officials say entire neighborhoods have been wiped out by the wildfire. Exact numbers aren’t yet available, and the fire is burning in several areas in the city’s south end. It’s too early to tell, but this has the makings of a terrible disaster.
The situation became quite chaotic as residents took to the roads. Some people were only given 30 minutes notice and were told to leave everything behind. Gridlock was endemic. The speed of the fire’s advance left many people—including city officials—completely off guard.
“On the left was a big gas station; the flames jumped over the highway and blew up the gas station. It was torched,” noted Fort McMurray resident Cassie White in a Globe & Mail article. “People were driving on the shoulder. There were flames maybe 15 feet high right off the highway. There was a dump truck on fire—I had to swerve around it—and there was a pickup truck on fire as well. The entire trailer park on my right was in flames. Roofs were coming down.”
To which White added: “It almost looks like a zombie apocalypse.”
Officials have accounted for about 53,000 evacuees from from McMurray, many of them retreating southward towards Anzac and Lac La Biche. Around 18,000 of them fled to Edmonton. Hotels around the region are completely booked as evacuees desperately look for places to stay. Incredibly, no fatalities or serious injuries have been reported at this time.
The fire had been burning near the city since Sunday, covering an area nearly 10 square miles (27 square kilometers), but shifting winds in the early afternoon on Tuesday led to the dramatic turn of events.
The province has asked for military help, and it should receive it soon in the form of assistance from the Army and the RCMP. However, city officials will have to wait for an agonizing two days before the military can effectively respond. There are currently only 150 firefighters tackling the blaze, but they’re expecting about 70 to 80 reinforcement from Edmonton later today. The fires were so severe on Tuesday that the firefighters had to pull back.
“The wildfire behavior is extremely erratic and it isn’t safe for firefighters to be on the ground,” noted Laura Stewart, a wildfire information officer, in the Globe article. “It’s a very fluid situation, and things are changing by the moment.”