Fort McMurray braces for high winds in battle with wildfire

Firefighters battling a blaze just 1,200 metres outside Fort McMurray say they're now bracing for the worst.

Winds picking up late Monday

Firefighters battling a blaze just 1,200 metres outside Fort McMurray say they're now bracing for the worst.

Wind that dropped off overnight, giving crews a short reprieve from the approaching flames, is once again picking up, blowing from the southeast as scorching temperatures return this afternoon.

The blaze, which is estimated to cover between 500 and 750 hectares of boreal forest, is only 1.2 km from the western edge of Alberta's oilsands city.

Fire chief Darby Allen said there had been "no significant change" to the fire overnight.

"The fire didn't really extend in size," he said. "It didn't gain ferocity. In fact, in calmed down quite a bit overnight."

But conditions are expected to worsen as Monday afternoon progresses, and could reach their peak by mid-afternoon.

The weather has made the fire's progress hard to track. Extremely dense smoke made it impossible for aerial crews to accurately measure the fire.

"There is very little to no wind," Allen said. "Generally, no wind is a good news story for us. The bad news side of it is, when the aircraft go up in the air, they can't where see the front of the fire, or any of the fire perimeter is.

"That smoke will lift and it will better enable the forestry guys to see exactly what's going on, and where to dump that water.

Twenty-eight firefighters, seven helicopters, and two air-tanker teams are currently battling the fire.

A mandatory evacuation order, issued Sunday night, remained in effect for Prairie Creek neighbourhood and Centennial Trailer Park.

The mandatory evacuation notice for the Gregoire area was reduced Monday to a voluntary shelter-in-place notice for the residential neighbourhood east of Gregoire Drive and Mackenzie Boulevard, and north of Mackay Crescent and Maclean Road.

Emergency officials plan to reassess the evacuation orders and provide an update to the community by 5:30 pm. Monday.

An emergency reception centre at MacDonald Island Park remains open.

The Greely Road School and Islamic School remain closed, and the city has been dealing with sporadic power outages.

Both Allen and Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake thanked the community for their outpouring of support for evacuees and first responders.

"I want to thank everybody, from the folks on the ground fighting this, to the people in the air, to the people in this room," said Blake.

Allen said their emergency control centre has been inundated with calls from people looking to help fellow residents, so many that their volunteer operations are past capacity.

"We are getting a tremendous amount of calls from people that live in this area. It's heartwarming. It's wonderful."

What we're looking for now is to see what direction the fire is heading and start planning out what resources we have.- Jordan Redshaw, RM of Wood Buffalo spokesman

Situation could change at any time; air quality advisory in effect

Premier Rachel Notley said she was she was briefed about the fire on Monday morning, and expected another briefing later in the day.

"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."

On Sunday night, Allen was concerned about the flames inching closer to residential areas.

About 500 people were told to leave their homes. 

Blake declared a state of emergency in the Gregoire neighbourhood just before 10 p.m. on Sunday, as the fire burned less than 500 metres from the Hangingstone River, which is bordered on the east side by Highway 63.

Jordan Redshaw, spokesman for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the long-range forecast calls for three days of hot, dry weather.

A special air quality advisory was in effect for the region.

"Individuals may experience symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath," Environment Canada stated.

"Children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk."

'It looked like the whole sky was on fire'

Mark MacKay was still at work, 40 kilometres north of the city, when he heard that his Prairie Creek neighbourhood was being evacuated.

He said he was shocked to see the flames along the skyline as he rushed home along Highway 63. 

"It was very high in the sky at one point," he said. "When I was coming back from work, you could the see flames along the tree line, and that's 40 kilometres away."

It was pretty scary. It was so close, it looked like it was just going to come right over our houses.- Missy Howlett, Gregoire neighbourhood resident

MacKay said when he reached the city, he wasn't able to get to his house, because the evacuation order was already in place. 

"I tried to get back to grab some of my personal belongings, and I can't get back at all."

MacKay is staying with friends until the evacuation order is lifted but went to the emergency reception centre on Sunday night to register as an evacuee.

"They were really great, but it's kind of quiet, sombre, eerie feeling when you walk in there," he said. "There were a lot of families around there registering."

Missy Howlett said there was a chaotic scene in Gregoire on Sunday when the evacuation order was issued. Watching from their homes, she said residents could see flames fill the whole sky. 

"It was pretty scary," she said. "It was so close, it looked like it was just going to come right over our houses. It looked like the whole sky was on fire."

Blake said a few hundred people ended up staying overnight at the emergency reception centre.

As of Monday morning, she remained hopeful that firefighters would gain the upper hand so that all evacuees could return home.