As firefighters continue to battle a devastating wildfire burning inside the city of Fort McMurray, images are starting to emerge about the tremendous scale of the devastation. City officials fear that the entire city could be lost.
Over 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray have been displaced by the wildfire, which continues to be fueled by hot, dry, and windy conditions. Preliminary estimates suggest that at least 1,600 structures have been destroyed, but the actual figure could be far higher. The CBC reports that as many as 2,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed in the Beacon Hill neighborhood alone. It’s feared that entire subdivisions have been destroyed.
The wildfire now extends across an area measuring 10,000 hectares (38 square miles) and has already claimed significant portions of the city’s southern areas. It now threatens Fort McMurray’s eastern borders.
Meanwhile, firefighters have stationed themselves around the downtown area (which has largely remained unscathed) and are currently working to protect industrial areas and the airport. Stricken areas look like something right out of a war zone, as charred cars, trucks, and homes continue to smolder. The city broke a heat record yesterday as unseasonably warm temperatures reached 90 degrees F (32 degrees C).
Alarmingly, the wildfire remains out of control, and fire officials are preparing for the worst. “This is a nasty, dirty fire,” noted Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen at a press conference earlier today. He warned that the fire will look for new areas to burn, and that residents should refrain from returning until further notice. The windy weather is making the spread of the fire unpredictable. Allen said that firefighters should “expect another terrible day.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged full government support for residents of the ravaged city. Canadian armed forces are on their way, but it could take them a couple of days to mobilize. It’s not clear how, given the delay, the troops will be able to help.
The city’s mayor, Melissa Blake, choked-back tears at the press conference, saying it’s “worse than we ever imagined.” The city, which serves as an important home-base for the Alberta oilsands, has been suffering from an economic downturn sparked by falling gas prices. The mayor described the fires as a “catastrophic event for the city” and “a major setback,” but she was insistent that the city “will come back.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley spoke at her own press conference, saying, “Our province is strong and we will get through this.”
Evacuees have flooded areas to the north and south of the city. Some 10,000 residents have moved north of the city, taking refuge in camps and lodges set up by the oil industry. Many of these camps were left absent on account of recent layoffs, but now they’re being put to good use. In addition to offering shelter, oil giants Suncor and Shell are also providing food to evacuees. Tens of thousands of others have fled southwards to Edmonton, Anzac, and Lac La Biche. Camps and lodges have also been set up along the southern highways.
Virtually everyone has been evacuated from Fort McMurray, though city officials said they continue to find “stragglers” who refuse to leave. Police are now going door-to-door to ensure that everyone is heeding the evacuation orders.
Over 100 patients and high-needs individuals had to be evacuated from the city’s Northern Lights Regional Health Center. Remarkably, they were all transported out of the hospital in just two hours. The last of the patients were evacuated early this morning, with airline company West Jet pitching in. Most of the patients have been moved to facilities in Edmonton. Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu said that nine newborn babies were among the evacuees but could not confirm reports that two babies were born in the evacuation camps. “We’re really proud of our staff,” she proudly noted, adding that “the hospital is still standing.”
The next 24 hours are quite critical, and fire crews have their eyes on several problematic hot spots that have appeared outside the major fire perimeter. Some much-needed good news is that the weather forecast is favorable, predicting a cold front that could bring in some rain and humidity—but it could, regrettably, also bring in some lightning.
City officials were reluctant to give exact figures about damages or the total cost of the devastation, but ground and air assessments are currently underway. Recovery plans are also underway, though it’s not immediately obvious how or where the thousands of stranded individuals will be accommodated in the coming weeks and months.
Chad Morrison, a senior manager with the Fort McMurray fire department, expects a worse fire day than yesterday, saying fire crews will be challenged well into the evening. There are currently 100 local firefighters at work, and another 100 from Ontario and elsewhere are expected to join in very shortly.