Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now

Massive Alberta wildfire could double in size today

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated.

Police officers direct traffic under a cloud of smoke from a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
Police officers direct traffic under a cloud of smoke from a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
Image: AP

CANADIAN OFFICIALS FEAR a massive wildfire could double in size by the end of today as they continue to evacuate residents of fire-ravaged Fort McMurray from work camps north of Alberta’s oil sands city.

Thousands more displaced residents will get a sobering drive-by view of their burned-out city as convoys continue.

Police and military will oversee another procession of hundreds of vehicles, and the mass airlift of evacuees will also resume. A day after 8,000 people were flown out, authorities said 5,500 more were expected to have been evacuated by the end of yesterday and another 4,000 today.

More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’s oil sands, where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings. The mass evacuation forced as much as a quarter of Canada’s oil output offline and is expected to impact a country already hurt by a dramatic fall in the price of oil.

The Alberta provincial government, which declared a state of emergency, said the size of the blaze had grown to 101,000 hectares (249,571 acres) or about 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) yesterday. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention, said there was a “high potential that the fire could double in size” by the end of today. He expected the fire to expand into a more remote forested area northeast and away from Fort McMurray. Extremely dry conditions and a hot temperature of 27 degrees Celsius are expected today along with strong winds, he said.

Morrison said no amount of resources would put this fire out, and what was needed was rain.

We have not seen rain in this area for the last two months … This fire will continue to burn for a very long time until we see some significant rain.

Environment Canada forecast a 40% chance of showers in the area tomorrow. Morrison said cooler conditions were expected tomorrow and Monday.

About 1,200 vehicles had passed through Fort McMurray by late Friday afternoon despite a one-hour interruption due to heavy smoke, authorities said.

Jim Dunstan was in the convoy with his wife, Tracy, and two young sons. “It was shocking to see the damaged cars all burned on the side of the road. It made you feel lucky to get out of there,” he said.

‘Everyone started panicking’

In Edmonton, between 4,500 and 5,000 evacuees arrived at the airport on at least 45 flights yesterday, airport spokesman Chris Chodan said. In total, more than 300 flights have arrived with evacuees since Tuesday, he said.

A group that arrived late on Friday afternoon was greeted by volunteers who handed out bottled water and helped direct people where to go next.

Among them was Chad Robertson, a fuel truck driver who was evacuated from Husky Energy’s Sunrise project, northeast of Fort McMurray. He said that when the fire started, even though the flames were relatively far away, “everyone started panicking”.

APTOPIX Canada Wildfire A water bomber drops water on a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Source: AP

Robertson said he had plans to go to a friend’s house in Edmonton before going home to Nova Scotia.

Scott Burrell, from Kelowna, British Columbia, was waiting with others in an airport terminal that had been repurposed for evacuees who were resting and waiting for flights. He said he was working for a scaffolding company at a plant called Fort Hills when the fire broke out on Tuesday.

We were working overtime and I just saw what looked like a massive cloud in the sky, but I knew it was fire. The very next day was my day to go home. Ends up we weren’t going home that day.

Burrell and others were evacuated by plane yesterday, after spending three days with families who arrived at the work camp because they were evacuated from their towns. He said he and other workers rationed food to help the families who were coming in, and some offered up their living spaces. Burrell planned to catch a flight back to British Columbia.

Making a difference

A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article.

Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can make sure we can keep reliable, meaningful news open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

Mandatory evacuation

About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation, where oil sands work camps that usually house employees were used to house evacuees. But the bulk of the more than 80,000 evacuees fled south to Edmonton and elsewhere, and officials are moving everyone south where it is safer and they can get better support services. The convoy was stopped for an hour because of smoke.

Police were escorting 50 vehicles at a time, south through the city itself on Highway 63 at a distance of about 20km south and then releasing the convoy.

All intersections along the convoy route have been blocked off and evacuees are not being allowed back to check on their homes in Fort McMurray. The city is surrounded by wilderness, and there are essentially only two ways out via road.

Fanned by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 75 square kilometres on Tuesday to 100 square kilometres on Wednesday, but by Thursday it was almost nine times that — at 850 square kilometres. That’s an area roughly the size of Calgary, Alberta’s largest city.

The fire was so large that smoke is blanketing parts of the neighboring province of Saskatchewan where Environment Canada has issued special air quality statements for several areas.

The region has the third-largest reserves of oil in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Greg Pardy, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said that as much as one million barrels a day of oil may be offline, based on oil company announcements. That’s just over a third of Canada’s total oil sands output, Pardy noted.

Read: This is what needs to happen for Donald Trump to beat Hillary Clinton

Read: Hikes in prices, menthols to be banned and plain packaging – cigarettes took a big hit this week

About the author:

Associated Press

Read next: