The sky in Fort McMurray, Alberta, was grey with smoke. The ground beneath was glowing red — with fire.
Like everyone else, Cassie White, a 19-year-old resident of the Canadian oil sands town, was trying to escape the flames that began to tear through neighborhoods on Tuesday. But in a car bound for Edmonton with her boyfriend, White discovered that there was no easy way out.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, White described a scene that resembled a “zombie apocalypse.”
As she drove south, “flames jumped over the highway” and engulfed a gas station to her left. “It was torched,” White said. Everywhere she turned, there was fire:
People were driving on the shoulder. There were flames maybe 15 feet high right off the highway. There was a dump truck on fire — I had to swerve around it — and there was a pickup truck on fire as well. The entire trailer park on my right was in flames. Roofs were coming down.
The chaos was the result of abnormally warm weather and dry conditions that had combined to make Alberta’s boreal forest a “tinder box,” the Associated Press reported. While the fire appeared manageable over the weekend, it grew into an inferno on Tuesday, buoyed by strong winds and dissolving into showers of ash.
The flames tore through the city, hitting several neighborhoods and a trailer park before striking the downtown core. Before nightfall, a mandatory evacuation order was issued. Fort McMurray’s some 80,000 residents needed to go — but where?
Those with cars were directed to Highway 63, where vehicles were at a near-standstill. Residents watched as flames jumped the road.
As the frantic residents fled, it was uncertain whether they would have places to go. According to the CBC, food and lodging were offered at nearby oil sands work camps, but even those — which generally accommodate thousands of employees — had become overwhelmed.
Three miles south of Fort McMurray, a former resident of the town offered evacuees free lodging at his resort.
“This is just devastating, but it’s amazing how the people have pulled together,” the establishment’s owner, Curtis Galas, told the CBC.
While no serious injuries have yet been reported, residents despaired of the damage to their homes, many of which have been lost to the flames. No estimates have been released of the number affected.
Carol Christian, who escaped with her son and cat, said reality set in as she drove out of her burning neighborhood.
“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,’” Christian told the AP. “It’s an overwhelming feeling to think that you’ll never see your house again.”
When the fire entered Centennial Trailer Park, John Davidson’s home was the second to go. He watched as flame enveloped the neighborhood, thinking of the valuables he would never get back. He and his girlfriend had lived in the park for more than a year, the CBC reported, and kept their cars and two snowmobiles there.
“Everything I worked for the last two years,” Davidson told the CBC, “it’s all gone.”
Authorities warned that things would get worse before they got better. Equally dry conditions and fierce winds are expected for Wednesday.
Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen said Tuesday was “the worst day of my career.”
“It’s a nasty, ugly fire and it hasn’t shown any forgiveness,” Allen told the CBC.
At one point, one hundred firefighters were battling the blaze, but they pulled back because the fire’s erratic behavior endangered their safety. Crews then used nine air tankers and more than a dozen helicopters to drop water streams and fire retardants on the flames, according to the Globe and Mail.
Fort McMurray hosts the Athabasca Oil Sands, the largest single oil deposit in the world, containing an estimated 174 trillion barrels of bitumen, the core raw material in the production of synthetic crude oil.
Now residents of the industrial city are wondering when they will be able to return home.
As she made her way out, the pandemonium unfolded before White like a scene from a movie: pedestrians breathed through wet clothes, police officers sported oxygen masks, a sheet of debris hit her car.
“It was very, very scary,” she told the Globe and Mail. “I felt like I was in a vacuum bag and all the air was being sucked out.”