FORT MCMURRAY — The leader of Alberta’s Opposition says that much of the downtown in the northern oil hub of Fort McMurray is being destroyed by fire.
Brian Jean, who is also the member of the legislature for the area, said late Tuesday that flames are encroaching on the city centre.
“Our hospital is on fire, where my children were born,” a sombre Jean told The Canadian Press in an interview. “My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed.
“I’m just hoping that the home I grew up in isn’t, but I’m afraid it probably is.”
He said businesses that have been in his family for three generations have been destroyed.
“It is a devastating impact but I’m hoping that we’ve had no loss of life,” he said.
The raging forest fire whipped up by shifting winds sent tens of thousands fleeing in both directions and prompted the evacuation of the entire city.
The blaze, which had burned since Sunday but seemed on its way to being neutralized Tuesday morning, overwhelmed firefighters when winds shifted quickly and drastically in the mid-afternoon to the southwest of the city.
Officials said flames stormed along a ravine and roared into the city and the race was on to get out.
Pictures and video on social media depicted a hellish scene of fountains of flame.
There was fire jumping roads, burning debris pitched into the paths of cars as frantic residents, lined up bumper to bumper, scrambled and fumbled to find their way through the thick grey haze.
“It became chaotic with vehicles trying to swerve and pull out into the ditch,” said resident Jordan Stuffco.
Air tankers and helicopters buzzed overhead.
“(With) the heat from the oncoming smoke and the flames, you could see mini-tornadoes forming near the road. It was something out of an apocalyptic movie.”
The blaze razed homes on the city’s western edge, though it was unclear how many. Officials confirmed some homes in a trailer park were torched.
As the afternoon wore on and the fire intensified, more and more sections of the city were ordered evacuated until the entire community, an estimated 80,000, was ordered out after 6 p.m.
Resident Carol Christian drove to an evacuation centre with her son and cat.
“When you leave … it’s an overwhelming feeling to think that you’ll never see your house again,” she said, her voice breaking.
“It was absolutely horrifying when we were sitting there in traffic. You look up and then you watch all the trees candle-topping … up the hills where you live and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. We got out just in time.’ “
Highway 63, the main way into Fort McMurray from the south, was closed after flames jumped the road. Those who had headed south were told to stay away while those who couldn’t head south headed north.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, speaking to reporters in Edmonton, said the province was doing all it could to ensure everyone’s safety. She said she was looking into the possibility of an airlift for residents with medical issues.
“As frustrating and as scary as it is to leave your home, it’s not as frustrating and scary as to find that you’re trapped,” said Notley.
“It is absolutely important that people follow instructions and evacuate as requested.”
She said 160 Mounties were on scene trying to get people out.
Officials said there was no word of any injuries or people laid up by smoke inhalation.
Resident Sandra Hickey said the situation changed quite quickly.
“When I got in the shower earlier today the sky was blue. When I got out, the sky was black,” said Sandra Hickey, who had to leave her home. “It was fast. The wind picked up and changed direction.”
Fire officials had already warned earlier in the day that rising temperatures and low humidity could help the fire grow.
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat ranged from very high to extreme.
Government spokesman Bruce Mayer said a cold front was expected to come through the region by mid- to late-day Wednesday, which would bring with it shifting winds gusting to 50 km/h. He said to expect “a more intense burning day.”
North of Fort McMurray, work camps associated with oilsands projects were being re-purposed to house evacuees.
Notley said the camps have secured spaces for 6,000 people, “but we know we need to find more.”
John Henderson of Edmonton, a scaffolder who was staying at a camp about an hour north of Fort McMurray, said he and the other workers were going to be flown out to make room for the evacuees, most of whom had arrived on buses and were staying in the gymnasium.
“Let’s face it, if things go south — and by south I mean move more north — this isn’t a place you want to be anyways.”
Evacuee Roscoe Sleeth arrived at the Mount Logan Lodge camp with his wife, two children and their two dogs.
He described a harrowing journey trying to get out of their city in a car packed full of their belongings. They first tried to go south on Highway 63, but when they got to the overpass “the flames were right down to the highway and cops were turning people around.”
A third son had managed to make it through before the fire jumped the highway.
“I would guess 30,000 to 70,000 people are going north,” he said. “It was wall to wall traffic going north.”
Sleeth has been through evacuations before, and said it’s “just part of living in the north.”
He shrugged off the possible loss of his home back in Fort McMurray.
“It’s just wood, hay and stubble,” he said. “I got my family out.”
Hayley O’Malley, a construction worker from Edmonton, said Tuesday she was going to head up to Fort McMurray with a group of about 100 friends to help out, adding they would load up with water and food to take to the evacuees.
“I’ll drive north, help out where I can and see what happens,” she said.
However, the Alberta Fire Fighters Association sent out an urgent tweet, pleading with people to stay home.
“We all want to help but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU SELF DEPLOY!”
Fort McMurray is the capital of Alberta’s oilsands region and sits about 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
It was five years ago this month that wildfires destroyed about one-third of the community of Slave Lake, Alta. More than 500 homes and buildings were damaged at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Notley said the Fort McMurray situation rivals the Slave Lake catastrophe.
“In terms of fire this is our biggest fire evacuation,” she said. “This is bigger than Slave Lake.”