Edmonton

Anxious day for Fort McMurray residents as huge wildfire holds its ground

An out-of-control wildfire raging through the forest about 1,500 metres from the western outskirts of Fort McMurray did not burn closer to town on Monday, and by early evening was moving southwest, away from nearby neighbourhoods.

Fire had consumed 1,285 hectares by 6 p.m. Monday, and 128 firefighters were working to gain control

Residents of Fort McMurray spent Monday watching the sky as a high wildfire burned about 1.5 kilometres from the western outskirts of town. (Sylvain Bascaron/CBC)

An out-of-control wildfire raging through the forest about 1,500 metres from the western outskirts of Fort McMurray did not burn closer to town on Monday, and by early evening was moving southwest, away from nearby neighbourhoods.

The fire had consumed 1,285 hectares by 6 p.m. Monday, and 128 firefighters were working to get it under control.

One of the primary goals of the work is being carried out by two bulldozer crews trying to cut a fire-line between the massive blaze and Highway 63, which links the town with the rest of Alberta.

Fire chief Darby Allen warned residents with ATVs or other off-road vehicles to stay away from the area west of town where the fire is burning. He said earlier in the day a water-bomber crew spotted a Jeep on the ground, which someone appeared to have driven on an off-road trail near the edge of the fire.

"Which, by the way, is completely crazy," Allen said. "We can't carry on dumping water while we know their are people down there."

Allen called Monday "a great day for us," since the fire did not burn closer to town.

A mandatory evacuation order issued Sunday for the Prairie Creek neighbourhood in the west part of Fort McMurray was lifted Monday and replaced with a "shelter-in-place" warning.

'Be ready to go'

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, cautioned residents of the area to remain alert for any changes in the fire.

"Shelter-in-place means you should be just as prepared," she said. "You should have your bags and be ready to go."

Bernie Schmitte, wildfire manager with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the most active part of the fire is the southwest corner, which was moving away from town by Monday evening.

He said the wind is expected to blow from the southeast Tuesday morning, switching to southwest by afternoon.

"We're in for another challenging day tomorrow," he said.

Tuesday is expected to be another hot and dry day. On Monday, the temperature reached 27 C and the relative humidity remained low.

Many residents in the west part of Fort McMurray spent Monday anxiously watching the flames, or the huge, apocalyptic cloud of smoke rising from the nearby forest.

Residents also listened to their radios or watched TV, or surfed the internet, looking for updates.

Robert Yule didn't get any sleep Sunday night.

Climbed up on their roofs

He lives in the Gregoire neighbourhood, which was under an evacuation order that night. He said before he and his neighbours were told to leave, many climbed up on their roofs to keep tabs on the fire.

"We watched the flames candle 200 to 300 feet into the air," said Yule, who works for the city's transit department and spent much of the night moving buses to the evacuation centre to keep them safe.

On Monday, residents were allowed back into the neighbourhood. But Yule said his jeep was packed with overnight bags for a few days and his and his wife's important files, just in case there a second evacuation notice was issued.

Shannon Smith, who was born in Fort McMurray, said she has seen many wildfires burn near the city over the years but "never this close."

She took her two sons out Monday afternoon to watch the water bombers buzzing just over the tree-line.

While residents waited and watched, politicians in the Alberta capital were also keeping a close eye on the fire.

Wildfires have been a political issue since the NDP government tabled its budget last month, which included a $15-million cut to spending on wildfire suppression.

Premier Rachel Notley said at the time the budget reflected base levels of funding and insisted that emergency funds will kick in if needed.

More money for fires if needed

Notley said Monday more money will be added to fight fires should the need arise.

"We will do what is necessary to fight these fires to the absolute maximum," she said. "There's no way, shape or form that would be changed or restricted in any way."

But Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said he's worried about the fate of the city he represents in the legislature.

"Right now my town is surrounded by wildfires," said Jean, the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin.

"We're very concerned with the cut in the budget," he said. "Because even though they're suggesting they will bring in emergency funding if necessary, the truth is that many of these people with the large water-bombers and helicopters have to make decisions based upon fiscal economics.

"And that means that they will be leaving our province to go somewhere else if we don't have … dedicated money set aside to fight fires."

Companies that contract water-bombers and helicopters to fight fires had their contracts trimmed this year to 93 days from 123 days the year before.

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