FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — A wildfire that has devastated parts of Fort McMurray has exploded in size, and officials say they are now water bombing the city to keep it from being overwhelmed by flames.
Officials could not update the number of structures that have burned — already at 1,600 — saying crews have not had the time.
“This is an extreme fire event,” Chad Morrison of Alberta Forestry told reporters at a briefing in Edmonton on Thursday.
“Our first priority, obviously, was the community and the homes as well as the critical infrastructure.”
Morrison said they had 22 water bombers and were bringing in more, including four from Quebec.
“But let me be clear: air tankers are not going to stop this fire.
“It (the fire) is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain.”
The fire, which had been menacing Fort McMurray since the weekend, rode a rapid shift in winds Tuesday afternoon to cut through the city on an east-west axis, cutting the main road and sending 80,000 residents fleeing in polar opposite directions under a mandatory evacuation order.
Aided by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 75 square kilometres Tuesday to 100 square kilometres on Wednesday, but by Thursday it was almost nine times that — at 850 square kilometres.
The fire remained wrapped around the west and southern edges of the city. If the city was the face of a clock, the fire surrounded it from the number four to 11.
Evacuees began their second full day out of their homes. About 25,000 remained in oilfield work camps north of Fort McMurray while the rest had moved south to stay in hotels, campgrounds, with friends, or in designated areas in Edmonton and as far south as Calgary.
Premier Rachel Notley said the province was exploring “a broad range of supports” for evacuees and expected to roll out some initial aid plans soon.
“To those people who have been displaced from their homes I want you to know that we have your back. You will be supported,” said Notley.
The government said they would begin moving out some of the 25,000 evacuees in the work camps north of Fort McMurray so that they can get more social supports in the south. There is only one road through Fort McMurray, Highway 63, and the fire in the community has cut off those who fled to the north.
Scott Long, with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said they would move out the most vulnerable — about 8,000 or so — by air.
After that, gas trucks will be sent north to make sure every car and truck has a full tank before they are led down the highway, through Fort McMurray to the south.
Fort McMurray, the oilsands capital, is 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton with few roads in or out.
Officials say there were about 300 firefighters in Fort McMurray, 200 of whom were within the city keeping structures safe.
The military is on standby but has not been called in except for helicopter support to rescue stranded residents, 15 of whom were reported to have been helped out on Wednesday.
The fire has proven to be as capricious as it has been hellacious, leveraging 70 km/h winds Tuesday to level neighbourhoods in the south and southwest, transforming homes that once housed families into smoky wastelands of concrete, rebar, and ash.
Crews have managed to save critical infrastructure, like the downtown, the hospital, and the water treatment plant.
Fire threatened the airport Wednesday, but Long said it sustained “mild damage” and was still in operation.
Fire danger has forced the operations centre to bounce around over the last 48 hours, relocating from the city limits to Anzac, south of the city, and then back to Fort McMurray.
Officials say they have yet to determine what caused the fire in the first place.
There have been no reports of fire-related deaths or injuries, although two people died in a head-on car crash on one of the secondary evacuation routes south of Fort McMurray on Wednesday.
Boil water and air advisories are in place for Fort McMurray and the surrounding area.
Crews received a small break in the weather Thursday, with temperatures expected to fall to 16C. However, the low humidity and high winds expected to keep the situation fluid and dangerous.
“I expect this fire to continue to grow,” said Morrison.