Safety an anthem for Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees

“Be safe” has become the anthem of some 25,000 Fort McMurray evacuees who were forced to flee northward on Tuesday.

The people of Fort McMurray are learning winds change quickly, fires can build in minutes.

Fort McMurray resident Crystal Maltais buckles in her daughter, Mckennah Stapley, as they prepare to evacuate the city of Fort McMurray for safer ground (Topher Seguin/Reuters)

"Be safe" has become the anthem of some 25,000 Fort McMurray evacuees who were forced to flee northward on Tuesday.

The phrase comes at the end of most texts and Facebook messages from friends and family who are watching the news. And it punctuates quiet conversations between evacuees, strangers who meet at lunch tables or the side of the road.

Be safe.

An edict, not a question. As though saying the words in that gently commanding way will make it true.

Those who had enough fuel to drive to towns and services south of Fort McMurray left the northern camps Wednesday morning. There was no block on Highway 63 then.

By Wednesday afternoon, RCMP vehicles closed the road at Parsons Creek.

Ashes started to fall from the sky

While wind picked up speed and blew the flames southward, plumes of smoke were still rising from the northern edge of town, a few kilometres from the roadblock.

Hundreds of hopeful evacuees from north of the city lined up on the highway, watching the haze get heavier. Heat seared late into the afternoon, and ashes started to fall from the sky. A telltale sign the fire was coming closer.

"We're turning people back now. The fire picked up speed on the other side of the ridge," said one of the police officers as he started to point vehicles in the other direction.

As the people of Fort McMurray have come to learn, winds change quickly. Fires can build in minutes.

The extent of the northern evacuees' concern is reflected in how willing they are to beg for fuel and head south on Highway 63, toward the flames they fled days earlier.

Even after the road block was moved further north, even after they were told the highway would likely stay closed overnight, they parked and stayed.

Do they feel they will 'be safe' ?

The answer is written on their weary faces. 

Not yet. 

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