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Video: Largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history forces tens of thousands of Fort McMurray residents to flee

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Desdemona Despair

[Live updates from CBC: Breaking updates on the Fort McMurray wildfire]

4 May 2016 (CBC News) – Fire officials battling a raging wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, are braced for another hot, dry and windy day, warning that the situation could be as bad or worse than the day before, when whole neighbourhoods burned down and the entire city was evacuated.

With strong winds likely to fuel the fire, thousands of residents have fled the city and up to 20,000 evacuees are expected to arrive in Edmonton.

One of them is Tamara Wolfe, whose home is in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood, one of the hardest-hit areas.

It took her family eight hours to reach the safety of an evacuation camp Tuesday night. By morning, they were headed for Edmonton.

Wolfe is certain her home on Beacon Hill Drive is gone. It was near a Super 8 Motel that burned down, and a Shell gas station that exploded.

“I’m in a state of shock,” she said Wednesday. “At one point I couldn’t cry if I wanted to. And the next minute, I’m bawling my eyes out.

“I had 40 years of stuff in that house, and family memories, that’s the hardest part. Things are replaceable, but not everything is replaceable.”

While Wolfe was on the highway, in Fort McMurray, regional fire Chief Darby Allen said Wednesday that the situation could be even more devastating. He said crews are worried about the wind, especially if it changes direction during the day.

Allen said the focus Tuesday was to get residents out of the community to keep them safe. On Wednesday, efforts will be focused on fighting the blaze and protecting critical infrastructure, including the bridge that spans the Athabasca River and links the two sides of the city. 

Late Tuesday, provincial and fire officials reported that homes in several residential neighbourhoods in the oilsands capital have been lost to fire. 

They also warned that Wednesday would not necessarily be any easier. [more]

Wildfire rages in Fort McMurray as evacuees settle in Edmonton

By Allison Martell, Ethan Lou, and Fergal Smith; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham
4 May 2016

TORONTO (Reuters) – A wildfire that raged out of control destroyed much of one neighborhood in the remote western Canadian city of Fort McMurray and badly damaged others, the local government said on Wednesday, with all 80,000 residents ordered to leave in the biggest evacuation in the area’s history.

Firefighters in the city, located in the northeastern part of the province of Alberta in the heart of Canada’s oil sands, braced for another tough day. Hot, dry weather has made it difficult to bring the fire under control.

By early on Wednesday morning, Shell had closed one oil sands mine and was in the process of closing another. Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry said the company’s priority was safety and to support the community. Henry said upgraders, which process oil sands to produce crude, would operate for a few more days.

The regional government on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of all city residents, but getting out remained difficult. The route out of Fort McMurray was complicated by a highway closure caused by the fire, and gasoline shortages prevented some people from being able to drive away. Some 44,000 people had fled the city by late on Tuesday, local officials said.

The fire broke out southwest of the city on Sunday, then shifted with the wind to enter the city on Tuesday. A forecast of potential fire intensity showed much of the area at class 6, the highest possible level.

While oil sands facilities are not in the fire’s path, the blaze is likely to disrupt operations. Many workers were under evacuation orders and some will likely lose their homes.

“The worst of the fire is not over. We’re still faced with very high temperatures tomorrow (Wednesday), low relative humidity and some strong winds,” Bernie Schmitte, an Alberta Forestry official, said late on Tuesday.

Officials said their priority was protecting people and preserving key infrastructure, including the city’s only bridge over the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only route in and out of town.

“Fuel is not readily available – do not attempt to travel south without sufficient fuel,” the regional government wrote in a bulletin posted on Twitter early on Wednesday. […]

The reduced oil sands production resulting from the fires was seen supporting global oil prices. Alberta is the biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

The oil sands accounted for roughly 2.2 million barrels per day, 60 percent of overall Canadian crude oil output in 2014, according to industry statistics.

“What we are hearing is that the wildfires aren’t necessarily at this point threatening the actual production facilities but they are cutting back on production to free up time for the workers, and so they are reducing production,” said Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada. “Come May GDP there will probably be a hit from the wildfires, but we will have to see how long it persists.”

Alberta could be in for long and expensive wildfire season this year as it is much drier than normal after a mild winter with lower-than-average snowfall and a warm spring. [more]

Wildfire destroys homes in Canadian city; 80,000 ordered evacuated

By Sarah O’Donnell
4 May 2016

(Postmedia News) – The largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history forced tens of thousands of Fort McMurray residents to flee Tuesday as explosive fire conditions destroyed homes and businesses and caused a rapid succession of mandatory evacuations that forced people onto gridlocked highways under clouds of smoke.

Officials were predicting “a more intense burning day” Wednesday as firefighters battled to save as much of Fort McMurray as they could, focusing on critical infrastructure.

People fled, some along a highway licked with flames, to emergency evacuation points at oilsands camps to the north and neighbouring communities to the south. Officials estimate 17,000 citizens fled north to industry sites. Another 35,000 headed south, including 18,000 people enroute to Edmonton.

Night fell Tuesday with fires having damaged many parts of the city of 83,000 people. Flames snaked their way through the city’s river valleys.

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

The very feature that gives Fort McMurray its beauty — the boreal forest that rings the city and runs up against its businesses and homes — makes forest fires a dangerous matter. The Athabasca River, a wide body of water that divides the city, failed to provide fire break Tuesday and flames leapt from the south bank to the north side of the river.

“There’s no question this is serious,” Premier Rachel Notley told a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“All Albertans are watching this. All Albertans are with the people of Fort McMurray.”

“My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed,” said Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, the area’s MLA.

“I’m just hoping that the home I grew up in isn’t, but I’m afraid it probably is.”

He said businesses that have been in his family for three generations have been destroyed.

“It is a devastating impact, but I’m hoping that we’ve had no loss of life,” he said. […]

The last time Alberta faced a fire-related evacuation of this magnitude was in 2011, when nearly 9,000 people were forced from Slave Lake and nearby communities for 12 days after a wildfire caught the community by surprise on May 14, 2011, and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Most of northern Alberta has been on fire alert since the first signs of an early, dry spring. Dozens of counties and municipalities are under fire bans.


‘Homes are on fire as we speak’: Tens of thousands flee as Fort McMurray burns

4 May 2016 (CBC News) – A huge wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., destroyed an entire neighbourhood and burned homes and businesses in several others Tuesday, and continues to rage out of control.

By late afternoon, the entire city of 60,000 had been ordered evacuated. Residents by the thousands fled the fire and for hours caused gridlock on Highway 63, even overwhelming oilsands work camps, where beds and meals were offered. Police were patrolling the highway with cans of gas, after fuel supplies ran out in Fort McMurray, Wandering River and Grasslands.

Fire chief Darby Allen said the entire neighbourhood of Beacon Hill “appears to have been lost” and the fire burned many homes in other parts of the city.

No buildings were lost in the city’s downtown area, Allen said. Despite the devastation, there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries. 

As of 10:30 p.m. MT, officials reported the neighbourhoods of Abasand, Wood Buffalo, Dickensfield, and Waterways saw only some damage.

No estimates were available on the number of homes and businesses that were destroyed.

Witnesses reported the Flying-J gas station exploded, while the Super 8 Motel and a Denny’s restaurant were gutted. 

Officials said about 17,000 residents escaped the city to the north, while another 35,000 drove south, at least half that number headed for Edmonton, 430 kilometres away.

Gas stations were emptied of fuel along the way leaving many motorists stranded on the highway. 

Fire officials said they expect Wednesday could be just as bad, with the wind expected to pick up and the hot, dry weather to continue.

Allen called Tuesday “a devastating day,” and said fire crews were simply overwhelmed by the speed and power of the wildfire.

“Everybody has given everything today to do the very best they could,” Allen said. “I can categorically state that everything that was absolutely possible to protect the community was done.”

Conditions on the ground changed quickly as the day progressed.

Allen said firefighters were “a little worried” earlier in the day, but with the 30 C heat and dry conditions, once the wind came up the fire became an inferno.

“It’s been the worst day of my career,” Allen said earlier. “It’s a nasty, ugly fire and it hasn’t shown any forgiveness.”


Fort McMurray wildfire remains out of control after city evacuated

By Valentina Ruiz Leotaud
3 May 2016

(National Observer) – It’s the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history.

The entire city of Fort McMurray, the heart of the oil sands industry in the northern part of the province, was facing an evacuation order Tuesday night as a raging wildfire forced tens of thousands of people from their homes.

“It’s apocalyptic,” said John O’Connor, a family physician who has treated patients with health problems in the region related to oil sands pollution.

He said there was no way out but north.

“The place looks like it’s all going,” O’Connor said.

Anyone breathing the ash-filled air would be facing serious health risks, he added.

Local officials from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued the evacuation order, instructing Fort McMurray residents to drive to the Noralta Lodge, a hotel near Suncor’s oil sands facility, and wait for further instructions.

“All of Fort McMurray is now under a mandatory evacuation – head north to Noralta,” Premier Rachel Notley wrote on her Twitter account.

About 70,000 people live in Fort McMurray. [more]

Fort McMurray fire: ‘It’s apocalyptic. No way out but north’

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