Nova Scotia

Fort McMurray wildfire approaches as Nova Scotians stuck in long car lineups

Nova Scotian residents of Fort McMurray are frightened and panicked as a wildfire encroaches on the northern Alberta city of 80,000, which is in the midst of being evacuated.

Lineups of cars and shortage of gasoline complicating evacuation

Katelyn Bruce, originally from Souris, P.E.I., captured this image from work in Fort McMurray at the moment she realized she would need to leave town. (Katelyn Bruce)

Nova Scotian residents of Fort McMurray are frightened and panicked as a large wildfire encroaches on the northern Alberta city of 80,000 which is in the midst of being evacuated.

Cape Breton native Verna Murphy was stuck in traffic as cars lined up to get out of the path of the fire. 

She described people crying in cars and on the side of the road. Three water bombers flew over head as she spoke to CBC News.

"It's actually chaos right now," Murphy said.

"We're on a divided highway and people are going over on the wrong side of the highway and driving against traffic to try to get down. It's just total chaos and pandemonium." 

Her family left home around 4 p.m. on Tuesday. It took them an hour to cover two kilometres. Murphy described an "orange glow" that could be seen outside the car's window.

CBC's Terry Reith tweeted this photo of flames blazing near a Mary Browns restaurant in Fort McMurray. (Twitter/@TerryReithCBC)

Worst is yet to come

Bernie Schmitte, the manager of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, has warned that the worst is yet to come. Wednesday's forecast calls for a high of 30 C, low humidity and strong winds.

There have been no reports of serious injuries.

For Murphy, the threat of being injured in a car crash was more immediate than being hurt by fire.

"We've now seen 11 accidents. Human beings right now are more of a threat than the fire is," she said.

"I'm so upset with seeing people drive like this and putting the rest of us in danger because emergency services can't get to us if there is an accident."

'Thick, thick ash'

Low visibility is adding to the threat, she said.

"Thick, thick ash falling on our windshield," Murphy said, adding the car's wipers need to be turned on every few minutes to clear it.

Jenn Ward, of Scotsburn in Pictou County, said lack of gas is a big concern for those trying to leave town. She and her boyfriend are sheltering in a commercial trailer north of Fort McMurray, near the Suncor site.

"There's extremely thick smoke. No one is going outside," she said.

'We need leadership here'

The couple was headed for Edmonton but the wildfire jumped the highway, forcing them to go north. They only have about a half-tank of gas.

"It's not enough to really get anywhere. But there's no place to get the gas, other places are running out of gas," said Ward, who's been in living in Fort McMurray for the past 18 months.

By Tuesday night, the manager of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry said there was no gas left in Fort McMurray.

"It's being drained as we go south," said Schmitte.

Emergency officials say people have been travelling too close to the wildfire front in Fort McMurray. (Marshall Whitsed )

Ward is also concerned about the lack of information and guidance coming from the municipality.

"It's been really terribly chaotic," Ward said. "We need leadership here. No one is stepping up and saying what needs to be done. There's not a lot of information right now."

'Feels surreal'

Verna Murphy, who lived with her family in the Dickensfield neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, said she called her husband once the fires breached the Athabaskan River on the city's border.

A mandatory evacuation order was in place by the time they got home from work. Their kids were still at school, so her husband went to pick up the youngest and she went to pick up the 16 year old.

Murphy has been involved in preparing for the emergency and keeping others keep up to date. Emergency bags were packed by Sunday night, at the suggestion of the city.

"It totally feels surreal," Murphy said. 

The weather conditions are a "perfect storm" in the area — dry and hot after a mild winter, with northerly winds blowing.

With files from Angela MacIvor, Carolyn Ray and The Canadian Press