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Residents Flee as Wildfire Threatens Canadian Oil Sands City

  • Associated Press

Smoke rises from a heavily wooded area in Fort McMurray, Alberta, May 3, 2016. Most residents were ordered to leave town after a wildfire swept through the oil sands region of Alberta. (Credit: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department)

Smoke rises from a heavily wooded area in Fort McMurray, Alberta, May 3, 2016. Most residents were ordered to leave town after a wildfire swept through the oil sands region of Alberta. (Credit: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department)

A wildfire forced the evacuation of the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, destroying 80 percent of the homes in one neighborhood and extensively damaging property in a number of others, officials said Wednesday, warning that it could get worse in the coming hours.

More than 80,000 residents were ordered to flee as flames moved into the city, destroying whole neighborhoods. No injuries have been reported.

Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinderbox. The wildfire threat ranged from very high to extreme in different areas.

An overnight update from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said the Beacon Hill suburb in the south end had suffered the most damage from flames, with 80 percent of the homes lost. A dozen trailers on one street in the neighborhood of Timberlea have gone up in flames, with serious losses reported in the Abasand and Waterways suburbs. Some homes have been lost in four other neighborhoods.

Fear of more damage

Fire chief Darby Allen told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday that parts of wooded areas of the city were still burning but no structures were currently on fire. Allen said he was worried about the plumes of smoke he saw outside his window and about the wind and its direction.

"It could be even more devastating, unfortunately,'' he said.

Firefighters were working to protect critical infrastructure, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only route to the city from the south.

Forestry manager Bernie Schmitte told reporters overnight that there was still danger from "very high temperatures, low relative humidities and some strong winds.''

Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement Wednesday that he was watching with "great concern'' and said the "situation is fluid and evolving rapidly.'' He noted the federal government was monitoring the situation carefully, including the military.

Military's aid sought

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, in a conference call from Germany early Wednesday, confirmed a formal request for assistance had been received from the Alberta government. What form that will take — at least on the military side — was still being determined, and they were expecting to hear soon about the kind of equipment and personnel required.

"We're making all assets available,'' he said.

The blaze had burned since Sunday and seemed on its way to being neutralized Tuesday morning, but it overwhelmed firefighters when winds shifted quickly and drastically at midafternoon Tuesday. Pictures and video on social media depicted a hellish scene of fire jumping roads and 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 gray haze.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called it the biggest evacuation in the history of the province. Residents were panicked.

"When you leave ... it's an overwhelming feeling to think that you'll never see your house again,'' said resident Carol Christian, who drove to the evacuation center with her son and their cat. "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.' ''

Oil sands projects

Fort McMurray is the heart of Canada's oil sands region. The Alberta oil sands are the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city's south side.

Suncor, the largest oil sands operator, said it was reducing production at its regional facility — about 15 miles north of the city — "to allow employees and their families to get to safety.''

Resident Breanna Schmidt said evacuating almost felt like "an apocalypse.''

"We had to literally drive through smoke and fire, vehicles littered all over the sides of the road, and we had to drive as fast as we could and breathe as little as we could because the smoke was so intense," she said. "We could feel the heat from inside the vehicle.''