FORT MCMURRAY, ALTA. — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says a wildfire that is raging around Fort McMurray has burned through roughly 1,600 structures in the city.
“There’s been fairly significant destruction of residences,” she said at a morning briefing in Edmonton.
“We’re looking at roughly 1,600 structures at this point, so 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.”
There are no reports of any injuries.
Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen says there are currently no buildings on fire, but he expects 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,” Allen told another update in Fort McMurray.
The wildfire is still out of control and has burned through about 75 square kilometres.
The wildfire, whipped by fierce winds, roared into the southwest corner of the city Tuesday afternoon. It torched homes in three subdivisions and destroyed vehicles, gas stations and a motel.
All residents — about 80,000 people — were ordered out, and fled north or south as fire cut the main road through the city.
View an interactive map of wildfire locations, perimeters, fire potential areas, global burn areas, wind conditions, and precipitation
“As far as we are aware, everyone is out,” Robin Smith with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city, said Wednesday.
“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.”
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.”
— Jordan J Stuffco (@jstuffcocrimlaw) May 3, 2016
Long traffic bottlenecks were also forming at the communities of Wandering River and Grasslands, two of the first stops along Highway 63 heading south. The municipality was advising drivers who had run out of gas to stay put.
Alberta Transportation said on Twitter it was escorting a fuel tanker up Highway 63 to assist stranded motorists.
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.”
Overnight, firefighters tried to maintain crucial infrastructure in the city, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63.
Notley said about 10,000 evacuees had fled north to stay at oilsands industrial camps that have opened their doors, 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.
By late Tuesday and early Wednesday some began trickling in to temporary shelters at a convention centre in Edmonton’s north end.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will provide all possible assistance to Alberta. The prime minister said Wednesday he had already spoken to Alberta Premier Rachel 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.
In Fort McMurray, officials began tallying up the initial losses.
The Beacon Hill suburb in the south end had the worst damage with about 80 per cent of homes destroyed.
A thick cloud of acrid smoke hung over the city on Wednesday morning as tens of thousands of people who fled the wildfire wondered about family, friends and their homes.
“It is what it is and we will wait to see what happens,” Dawn Pike-Cumby said at a roadside turnoff as she fed her children slices of melon.
“You hope for the best but you can’t do much. If it is gone it is gone.”
A seemingly endless line of cars and trucks headed south toward Edmonton overnight and into the early morning hours seeking refuge from the flames.
Others drove north of Fort McMurray where oilsands companies opened their work camps to shelter evacuees.
Kyla Penner seemed calm but was still processing the hectic hours in which she had to call parents to pick up their children from the home daycare she operates in the city.
As the fire and smoke closed in she quickly packed some clothes and food, wondering where to go with her family.
First she drove north and then turned south, thinking about her mother-in-law who was in another neighbourhood and had to be saved by a helicopter.
“My family for the most part is good,” she said smiling while holding her son in her arms.
“There is no word about our home. It won’t be a shock if it is not there.”
April Bolger said she spent more than an hour frantically calling 911 from her home to seek help for Lilly, her 20-month-old daughter, who suffers a heart condition.
Bolger said the dispatcher told her she would better off driving out of the city herself.
“I couldn’t even take her outside without her losing her breath,” she said while waiting for a break in the traffic.
“I had to put a drenched towel over her face to bring her to my vehicle.”
Bolger was heading to Edmonton, hoping to get Lilly into the Stollery Children’s hospital.
Gerry Murphy said the traffic was so clogged as people fled that it took him more than two hours just to drive out of his neighbourhood.
His wife Golda said the evacuation order came as they were planning to celebrate their grand-daughter’s 16th birthday.
“It wasn’t looking good when we drove out of the driveway,” he said. “It is devastating, just totally devastating.”
Shawn Brett was sitting at home when some friends phoned, warning him to get out of the city quickly.
Brett said when he opened his front door he could see smoke and flames as police urged people in his neighbourhood to evacuate.
Jumping on his Harley Davidson, Brett said he had no time to grab belongings and was almost too late.
“I literally drove out of the flames. I had ashes hitting me in the face,” he said.
“Everything was jammed. You had people all over the place. The gas station was on fire. It was the biggest chaos I have ever seen.”
The havoc wrought by the wildfires didn’t stop people from thinking about how others were being affected by the calamity.
As she watched the smoke billowing over the city Pike-Cumby quietly sobbed as she paid homage to the first responders who were trying to keep people safe.
“The RCMP, the firefighters – from the bottom of our hearts, thank-you,” she said. “Without your calm presence we wouldn’t be here today.”
Politicians of all stripes sent out their condolences, but the leader of Alberta’s Opposition was busy dealing with his own loss.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who is member of the legislature for the area, said his home of the last 10 years was destroyed, and he expected his childhood home probably had been as well.
He said businesses that have been in his family for three generations were also lost.
“It is a devastating impact but I’m hoping that we’ve had no loss of life,” he said.
The blaze had started on Sunday and seemed on its way to being neutralized Tuesday morning. But the winds shifted quickly and drastically in the mid-afternoon.
Suddenly, the 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 — fire jumping roads, burning debris pitched into the paths of cars, and frantic residents lined bumper to bumper in vehicles, trying to find their way through the thick grey haze as 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,” said resident Jordan Stuffco. “It was something out of an apocalyptic movie.”
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.
In Ottawa, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi described the fire as “a tragic, tragic situation.”
“A few of my friends arrived home safely in Edmonton. It took them 9 hours to get there, but they’re home safe. It’s very devastating,” said Sohi, who represents the riding of Edmonton Mill Woods.
Sohi said he was last in Fort McMurray six weeks ago meeting with municipal council, Metis and service providers.
“It’s one of those communities which was evolving to become a home for many, many people,” he said. “And when you lose your home and when you lose all your belongings, I just can’t imagine the heartache that people are feeling.”
Asked if the risk of future wildfires might prevent the federal government from pouring more infrastructure money into the area, Sohi replied: “Our immediate role is to make sure we are providing the proper support to the municipality and the province….for the long term we will have to assess the situation so we’ll see what happens, but immediately our focus is to provide that immediate assistance.”
Calgary MP and veterans affairs minister Kent Hehr, asked about the cascade of fires and floods to hit Alberta in the past few years, said “It’s tremendously difficult. We know 57 per cent of national disasters are happening in Alberta. Look it’s a very difficult time, hopefully we learned from those floods and I have every confidence in the provincial government and the prime minister, are going to serve Alberta well in this very difficult time.
“Going through the floods and now these fires it’s a really difficult time and my hope is that to date everyone is safe and will rebuild.”