FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – Alberta declared a state of emergency Wednesday as crews frantically held back a wind-whipped wildfire in Canada’s main oil sands city of Fort McMurray, forcing more than 80,000 residents to flee.
The fire approached the airport late Wednesday, where crews were onsite. All commercial flights in and out of Fort McMurray have been suspended.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said fire had destroyed or damaged an estimated 1,600 structures. Flames were being kept from the downtown area thanks to the “herculean'” efforts of firefighters, said Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. No injuries or fire related fatalities have been reported.
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. Fort McMurray is surrounded by wilderness in the heart of Canada’s oil sands – the third largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Danielle Larivee, Alberta’s minister of municipal affairs, said the fire was actively burning in residential areas. More than 250 firefighters were battling the blaze. An update from the Municipality of Wood Buffalo later in the evening indicated the fire was continuing to claim homes and had destroyed a new school.
Fatalities have been reported from a collision on a nearby highway but she was unaware if it was related to the evacuation or fire.
There were haunting images of scorched trucks, charred homes and telephone poles, burned out from the bottom up, hanging in the wires like little wooden crosses.
Officials were forced to evacuate their make-shift emergency operations center for the second time in
the span of less than a day as the flames spread south, the Reuters news agency reported.
Some residents were evacuated for a second time late Wednesday when they were told to leave their emergency accommodations in the nearby hamlet of Anzac.
Officials said changing weather patterns forced the move. There had been 2,500 evacuees registered at the local recreation center, although it was not known how many were still there when they were told to get on buses for Edmonton further to the south.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley flew up to survey the situation, and tweeted pictures of the fire from above. “The view from the air is heartbreaking,” she wrote
The blaze effectively cut Fort McMurray in two late Tuesday, forcing about 10,000 north to the safety of oil sands work camps.
The other 70,000 or so were sent streaming south in a bumper-to-bumper snake line of cars and trucks that stretched beyond the horizon down Highway 63. Some vehicles sat in ditches, the victims of engine trouble or a lack of gas.
Southbound traffic eventually “thinned to a trickle,” Reuters said.
Officials said they eventually would like to move everyone south.
A huge cloud of black smoke was visible more than 37 miles from the city, according to Reuters.
Firefighters were working to protect critical infrastructure, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only major route to the city in or out.
Notley called it the biggest evacuation in the history of the province. Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called it one of the largest fire evacuations in Canadian history, if not the largest. “It’s a community of 88,000 people that’s been totally evacuated,” Goodale said. “This is going to take a while to recover.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known he called it “absolutely devastating” and said there’s a loss on a scale that’s hard to imagine. Trudeau said he’s offered the province his government’s full support. He encouraged Canadians to support friends and donate to the Red Cross.
Trudeau noted climate change is contributing to an increase in extreme weather and fires but said it’s difficult to establish a direct link.
Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city’s south side. Allen said he’s not aware of any threat to oil facilities but called the fire a “moving animal.”
Shell said it has shut down production at its Shell Albian Sands mining operations- about 60 miles north of the city – so it can focus on getting families out of the region. Suncor, the largest oil sands operator, said it is reducing production at its regional facility – about 15 miles north of the city. Many other companies evacuated non-essential staff.
Chelsie Klassen, a spokeswoman for The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said all large oil sands facilities have emergency crews and plans for forest fires, noting all personnel would be evacuated and facilities would be properly shut to minimize the damage. She noted 80 percent of the oil sands are located deep underground and can only be extracted through a drilling process. The remaining 20 percent is minable from the surface and predominantly located north of Fort McMurray. She said it can burn under certain circumstances, but oil sands would burn at a much slower pace considering their composition with sand.
Former National Hockey League player Doug Sulliman said he could see from his apartment balcony that both sides of the highway south were engulfed in flames and estimated hundreds of homes in the Beacon Hill suburb over the hill had been destroyed. “You could hear the pop, pop, pop because of the propane tanks. The fire was just consuming these houses. It just destroyed the whole community,” he said.
He said the highway later opened and it was bumper to bumper and said there were many cars on the side of the road because service stations were out of fuel. “There was a Shell gas station that blew up and a Denny’s next door. There was nothing but the foundation and it was still smoldering in flames,” he said.