Fort McMurray wildfire remains out of control after city evacuated

A huge wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., destroyed an entire neighbourhood and burned homes and businesses in several others Tuesday, and continued to rage out of control.

60,000 flee as wildfire leaps highway and into city

Flames are seen from the Sawridge Motel in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Tuesday. The entire city of 60,000 has been ordered evacuated. (Terry Reith/CBC)

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.

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As CBC Edmonton is the only radio station currently on the air in Fort McMurray, we will continue with live fire coverage throughout the night.

You can find CBC Edmonton at 93.9 FM and 740 AM

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.

Fort McMurray fire chief speaks through tears

7 years ago
Duration 1:14
'We've had a devastating day,' Chief Darby Allen told CBC's Briar Stewart. 'It's been the worst day of my career'

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."

RAW: Video of Fort McMurray fire as it approaches the city

7 years ago
Duration 1:21
Taken in the afternoon on Tuesday, the fire threatens the city of Fort McMurray.

Conditions changed quickly

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."

By 6:30 p.m., the entire city was under a mandatory evacuation order, making it the largest wildfire evacuation in the province's history, far surpassing the Slave Lake fire that made international headlines five years ago.

Fort McMurray's only hospital, the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, was evacuated as flames approached from the Waterways neighbourhood. 

The province closed Highway 63 and Highway 881 to Fort McMurray to all non-essential travel.

"All Albertans are watching this," said Premier Rachel Notley. "All Albertans are with the people of Fort McMurray."

Notley said she hopes to get up to the city on Wednesday depending on the status of the fire.

CBC has confirmed that senior military officials are preparing for a request to come from Notley on Wednesday for help to fight the wildfires.

The Department of National Defence may offer airlift and other transportation support for firefighting as well as logistical help.

Alberta's opposition Leader Brian Jean, a Fort McMurray MLA, was trying to get back to the city. He believes his Fort McMurray home may have fallen to the flames.

'It's probably all blown away now'

The fire had barely hit the Centennial Trailer Park before John Davidson and his girlfriend, Joanne Bates, had lost everything. 

"It was the second one to go," said Davidson. "It's probably all blown away now." 

Behind him, the flames consumed what was left of the trailer park where his former home sat. 

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Davidson and Bates had lived there for more than a year and kept their vehicles and two snowmobiles there. 

"Everything I worked for the last two years, it's all gone," said Davidson. 

While the two commend the RCMP and the fire department, they are upset that they weren't able to get into the trailer park to get their belongings. 

"It's a disaster," said Bates. "I think it's not fair. They didn't even let us take our things, so we lost everything."

Many evacuation facilities full

Finding a bed for the Fort McMurray evacuees became a problem as the evening progressed.

The evacuees who fled north from the town seeking shelter at oilsands camps arrived at facilities already full. 

"Realistically, we are seeing camps fill up. The camps closer to town have been filled," said Robin Smith, spokesman for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo around 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night. "People are pushing on toward Syncrude."

The municipality is working with Syncrude to co-ordinate for the arrival of evacuees, Smith said. The camp is about an hour-long drive from town, he said.

"We are asking them to take as many as they can."

Shell Canada said it will open its Albian Village, about 85 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, to all resident evacuees. 

The Fort McKay First Nation, about 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, also opened camps to evacuees.

Fire fight to be worse tomorrow

The news won't get any better any time soon, Bruce Mayer with Alberta Forestry said in a mid-afternoon news conference.

"This fire today with the temperature, the relative humidity … the fuel is very explosive out there right now," he said.

Mayer said the province has nine air tankers, a dozen helicopters, and more than 100 firefighters, with more on the way.

Firefighters are expecting a cold front to move into the area by mid-afternoon Wednesday, with winds gusting up to 50 km/h.

"So tomorrow is expected to be a more intense burning day than today is," Mayer said.

With files from Marion Warnica


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