All of Fort McMurray’s more than 80,000 residents ordered to flee as wildfires reach city1,162 views
Fort McMurray’s more than 80,000 residents have been ordered to flee the oilsands city after a massive wildfire, fuelled by soaring temperatures and tinder-dry forest, broached the city limits.
At 6:20 p.m., a mandatory evacuation order was issued for the entire city, with residents advised to head north to Noralta Lodge and wait for further instructions. Word came down later that Noralta Lodge was full and evacuees were being sent further north to other work camps.
The wildfire burning in the city limits has forced the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history. It’s expected to get worse Wednesday, when winds are forecast to switch direction and increase in intensity, at speeds of 25 to 50 kilometres per hour.
At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Premier Rachel Notley said “this is bigger than Slave Lake.” The Slave Lake fire in 2011 decimated the town and forced the evacuation of 9,000 people.
All of Fort McMurray is now wondering if they will have homes to return to, as the fire that started Sunday quickly overwhelmed firefighters and the city’s resources.
The first evacuation orders came at 4:15 p.m., when the municipality ordered the evacuation of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Gregoire, Waterways, Draper, Saline Creek and Grayling Terrace. Residents were told to head to the Anzac Recreation Centre, about one hour south of Fort McMurray.
As they headed south, those people saw much of their city on fire. The immolation of the Centennial Trailer Park was nearly complete, with the flames stripping all that was flammable off the metal skeletons of mobile homes and vehicles.
Trees 20 metres from Highway 63 were burning, with thick smoke covering the highway. The McMurray Metis office was in flames and looked ready to collapse under the heat.
It was impossible to see into Waterways, which was hidden in yellow and orange smoke, but trees and buildings were burning.
Hundreds of trucks, cars, motorcycles and mobile homes had pulled over, suffering from engines choked by smoke or running low on gas. People sat dazed, many in tears.
Police officers wearing breathing masks directed traffic. A handful of good Samaritans helped direct traffic after pulling over near side roads and businesses, either voluntarily or because they could no longer continue.
At the turnoff towards Highway 881 and Anzac, most continued south towards Edmonton. At a gas station outside the Fort McMurray First Nation No. 468, the gravity of the day finally hit those that had stopped for gas or to take a break and call loved ones.
Merv Hansen was working construction at the Fort McMurray Islamic Centre in Abraham’s Land when he left. For most of the afternoon he could see one plume of smoke in the distance. He ran home when that turned into four, but arrived too late.
“The house I was in was gone,” said Hansen. “The smoke was so thick and there were still people going into their homes.”
Despite watching his home burn, he remained stoic as he waited in line for a gas pump.
William Blundon and his fiancée, Brenda Byrne, had recently returned to their home in Prairie Creek after staying at a friend’s place in Thickwood. Prairie Creek was evacuated Sunday evening, before the order was lifted Monday afternoon.
Now both they and their friends were fleeing town.
“What I don’t understand was why everyone was telling us to go downtown at first, because you could see the fire coming in,” said William.
Those living in Thickwood, Wood Buffalo, Dickinsfield and the Lower Townsite packed onto Highway 63 and headed to Noralta Lodge, 21 kilometres north of the city near a Suncor Energy site. But space quickly filled.
Timberlea and Parsons Creek were the last to be evacuated, with orders to leave coming in shortly after 6:20 p.m. But most residents weren’t taking any chances and had already left.
Cassandra Fountain left her Parsons Creek home to join family that had settled at Gregoire Lake Provincial Park.
“I prefer not to be stuck out there when all my friends and family are coming towards Anzac,” he said.
RCMP set up a roadblock at the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881 just south of the city Tuesday evening to allow emergency responders heading into the city, said Graeme McElheran, director of communications at Alberta Transportation.
Highway 63 runs north-south through Fort McMurray and is a main thoroughfare for people heading in and out of town, as reports emerged Tuesday evening of congestion at both ends of the busy highway.
Alberta RCMP K Division media representative Sgt. John Spaans said that a number of evacuees have pulled over to park and rest in towns on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, such as Wandering River and Mariana Lake.
“Were supporting the emergency response by the province,” Spaans said, adding that detachments from across the province have dispatched officers to help with the emergency response. “Our involvement at this point is to ensure public safety.”
Traffic was also being diverted at Highway 63 just north of the Village of Boyle, about 256 km south of Fort McMurray, to avoid further congestion on the highway.
All non-essential traffic to Fort McMurray on Highway 63 and Highway 881 was restricted, Alberta Transportation said in a statement Tuesday evening.
Temperatures reached 32 C in Fort McMurray and humidity has dipped below 15 per cent.
Syncrude Canada tweeted that employees are to stay at their work locations, and that shuttle buses leaving the site have been suspended.
While Shell’s operations 95 kilometres north of Fort McMurray haven’t been affected by the fire, the company has opened its Albion Village work camp to any staff or their families who need a place to stay, spokesman Cameron Yost said.
Some workers opted not to return to Fort McMurray following the afternoon shift change, but he didn’t know how many people are spending the night at the camp.
As news of the fire spread, an outpouring of concern flooded social media.
Jen McManus is the Alberta vice-president of the Canadian Red Cross. She says the Red Cross is working closely with the provincial operations centre to get supplies — cots, blankets, and personal hygiene products — to the people who need them. But getting them to the Fort McMurray area is a challenge.
“We’re waiting to hear how operational the airport is,” she says.
Numerous flights had already been cancelled as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Red Cross will also be working closely with the province to set up a family reunification service, so people can get in touch with evacuated friends and family.
In a crisis like this, says McManus, generous people often want to donate used clothes and other things. But McManus says the Red Cross will not be collecting in-kind donations, because they just don’t have the operational capacity to deal with those sorts of items. But the Red Cross would encourage financial donations at its website, www.redcross.ca.
Alberta Health Services said 105 patients were hurriedly removed from the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in a 90-minute period early Tuesday evening.
The patients were taken by bus to an undisclosed safe location outside of Fort McMurray, where they are now waiting to be transported to other health facilities in the province. Staff are attending to their medical needs, but no one is in serious distress, AHS said.
The health authority said it began putting into a motion an evacuation of the hospital around 5:15 p.m., which continued until the last patient was taken out at 6:40 p.m. A total of 73 acute care patients and 32 continuing care residents were evacuated. Staff have also left the facility.
AHS said a handful of personnel were still on site around 7:30 p.m. to do a final walk-through of the hospital, but they, too, were planning to leave as soon as possible.
Politicians were also quick to respond to news of the destruction.
Wildrose opposition leader Brian Jean said he was leaving Edmonton for Fort McMurray immediately to offer support. Jean is the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin.
Notley spoke about the wildfire situation in Edmonton around 5 p.m., and said the focus is on getting people out of the city safely.
“All Albertans are watching this, all Albertans are with the people of Fort McMurray,” Notley said.
Notley also thanked the first responders and industry partners that are assisting with firefighting efforts.
The premier said she had already spoken with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about possible assistance.
Trudeau also took to social media to express concern, stating that his thoughts are with those affected.
As the evacuation orders rolled in, the municipality issued notices about suspending transit, and schools took steps to get students out of the evacuated areas and for students to be picked up early.
The mandatory evacuation order came within minutes of the region’s mayor urging people to get ready to flee.
“You are warned to be ready,” Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said on Twitter.
On Tuesday morning, 80 firefighters and eight helicopters fighting the blaze. A heavy helicopter was expected to arrive in the region around 3 p.m.
At a news conference held early Tuesday, Bernie Schmitte said a cause of the wildfire had not yet been determined.
News Source CalgaryHerald