Work camp housing wildfire 1st responders forced to evacuate

A massive wildfire nicknamed "the beast" is expected to skirt the edge of Suncor's oilsands site north of Fort McMurray later today, and could reach the Saskatchewan border sometime before midnight.

Inside the city, police are going house to house, looking for people who may have been unable to leave

Firefighters prepare to be deployed into the Fort McMurray wildfire as they receive orders near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A massive wildfire nicknamed "the beast" has forced a work camp north of Fort McMurray housing first responders to evacuate Saturday night. 

"This is an orderly and precautionary evacuation," Noralta, the company that runs the camp, said in a press release, adding that people in the area are "not in imminent danger." The announcement came at 6:30 p.m.

Earlier in the day authorities informed those staying at the camp they should be prepared to evacuate on two hours' notice. 

Non-essential staff are currently being sent south of Fort McMurray to safe sites on buses. Some workers will be sent to Grey Wolf, another camp north of Fort McMurray. 

Reaching the the east

The fire is expected to skirt the edge of Suncor's oilsands site north of Fort McMurray later today, and could reach the Saskatchewan border sometime before midnight.

Inside the mostly quiet and all-but abandoned city, police are going house to house, looking for people who may have been unable or unwilling to leave.

In a news conference Saturday, Premier Rachel Notley urged the last few holdouts still lurking in the city to leave at once.

"Please listen carefully to this," she said. "If you aren't a police officer, a firefighter or otherwise have a first-responder role in the emergency, you should not be in Fort McMurray."

More than 500 firefighters are now battling the blaze on many fronts in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters, 16 air tankers and 88 other pieces of equipment.


Officials expect the fire in the Fort McMurray area to grow bigger on Saturday, and say by the end of the day it could swell to 2,000 square kilometres, an area three times the size of Edmonton or Toronto.

The fire should pose no danger to Suncor's oilsands facilities, 30 km from Fort McMurray, according to Chad Morrison, the province's senior wildfire official. 

"Those sites are very resilient to forest fires, largely because the sites are cleared and free of vegetation," he said.

All oilsands facilities in the area are surrounded by wide firebreaks and are protected by their own highly trained fire crews, Morrison said. Syncrude, which is further north, is also shutting down its operations in the area.

Both Suncor and Syncrude have evacuated their facilities as a precautionary measure, said Scott Long with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Premier Rachel Notley update on Fort McMurray wildfire

7 years ago
Duration 30:26
'If you aren't a police officer, a firefighter or otherwise have a first-responder role in the emergency, you should not be in Fort McMurray'

The prevailing wind is blowing from the southwest, pushing the fire northeast away from Fort McMurray. The huge fire could reach the Saskatchewan border, 90 kilometres away, by the end of the day and will likely continue long after any danger to communities has passed, perhaps for many months, Morrisons said.

"We expect to add at least [1,000 square kilometres] to this fire today," he said. "The good news is, it still continues to move away from the community."

Darby Allen, the regional fire chief of Wood Buffalo, has been battling this out-of-control wildfire for a week now, and has taken to calling it simply "the beast."​

Over the past five days, the fire has destroyed more than 1,600 homes and buildings, forced 80,000 to evacuate the city, and resisted all efforts to try to wrestle it under control.

A member of Wildfire Management Alberta's Wild Mountain Unit out of Hinton, hoses down hotspots in the Parsons Creek area of Fort McMurray on May 6. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Reuters)

Notley said Saturday that fire crews have been able over the past two days to keep the fire away from the city.

"We had a good day yesterday," she said. "We held the line, for a second day." 

​But the premier admitted there is nothing police or the government can do to force people to leave, despite the fact that a "mandatory evacuation order" has been in place for five days.

RCMP Insp. Kevin Kunetzki said police have been searching through a city gone eerily silent, looking for stragglers.

"I can tell you personally," he said, "driving to my accommodations last night, barely being able to see in front of the car."

A badly damaged swing set sits in a residential neighborhood destroyed by the fire in Fort McMurray, which is still burning out of control. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Officers working in and around the city are wearing masks or ventilators to protect them from the heavy smoke, and say there are times when visibility is no more than 10 metres.

"I know there has been some indication of looting," he said. "But crime is not rampant in the community.

"We're not seeing people running around with televisions and carrying them out of the area."

Syncrude Canada said Saturday it will shut down operations and remove all workers from both the Aurora and Mildred Lake mines and its upgrading complex at Mildred Lake.

"We have made this decision to ensure the safety of our personnel and the integrity of our operations," said Leithan Slade, public affairs specialist for Syncrude Canada Ltd. "While there is no immediate threat from fire, we anticipate smoke could start to encroach on our Mildred Lake site this morning."

Fort McMurray convoy

7 years ago
Duration 2:57
CBC's Briar Stewart in Fort McMurray watches as a convoy of evacuees moves through the city and the flames surrounding it

Morrison said the fire started at about 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 1. It was about two hectares when it was discovered, and firefighters began fighting it immediately. Despite those efforts, the fire grew to 60 hectares by the end of that first day.

Three days later, the entire city of Fort McMurray was evacuated and and thousands of people fled south toward Lac La Biche and Edmonton, while about 25,000 residents went north up Highway 63.

Over the past few days, thousands of those stranded people have been flown south on special flights, and thousands of others have driven out in convoys organized and overseen by the RCMP.

Notley said Saturday the goal is to have all of those evacuees out of the area by the end of the day.

The premier also said 32,000 households had registered with the Red Cross by Saturday afternoon. The Red Cross has collected more than $44 million in donations, so far, to help fire victims.

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