This post has been updated.
A violent, fast-spreading wildfire has claimed a city in Alberta, Canada, forcing over 80,000 residents to evacuate on Tuesday night. It was the largest wildfire evacuation in Canada on record, and the third-largest environmental disaster evacuation.
Hot and dry weather conditions fueled the blaze, which grew rapidly as winds gusted over 20 mph. The weather won’t turn favorable in Fort McMurray for firefighting until at least Friday.
Wednesday high temperatures are forecast to surge into the upper 80s in the afternoon. Winds from the west are expected to gust to about 25 mph. Thursday will be much cooler, but steady winds of 10 to 15 mph will continue.
Fire danger is extreme across almost all of Alberta on Wednesday, according to the Natural Resources department of Canada. “Extreme” fire danger means that fires will be fast-spreading and high-intensity. Instead of spreading at ground-level, the wildfire will jump from treetop to treetop. It will be extremely difficult to control, and will only be approachable on the flanks, or sides. At the head, or the fastest-spreading part of the fire, the department says that only indirect actions will be possible.
The fire, which started on Sunday afternoon, grew to 300 acres by Sunday night. As of Wednesday, CBC reported that it had grown to over 24,000 acres — quadrupling in size since Tuesday night.
The temperature rocketed to 90 degrees on Tuesday afternoon at the Fort McMurray Airport — the three-letter identifier for which is “YMM.” The air was hot and dry, with a paltry 33-degree dew point. Combined with the temperature, that leads to less than 10 percent humidity and conditions ripe for the spread of wildfire.
Just as the day was reaching peak heat, wind gusts climbed to 24 mph. A little over an hour later, a mandatory evacuation order came down for the entire city. All 83,000 residents were told to get out — to leave their homes and their possessions and flee.
According to a disaster database maintained by the government of Canada, the Fort McMurray fire is now the largest evacuation for a wildfire on record in the entire country, and the third-largest evacuation for an environmental disaster, which includes things like floods and winter storms. The largest evacuations for an environmental disaster came during floods in 1950 in Winnepeg and 2013 in Alberta. Records in this database go back to 1900.
Hellish scenes flooded social media as people packed and drove out of town en masse on the only four-lane highway in and out of the city — Route 63 — using all four lanes and the shoulders to move as many people as quickly as possible. People ran out of gas and became stranded, so the Alberta transportation department drove a fuel tanker up Route 63 on Wednesday morning.
The Edmonton Journal reports officials estimate that 17,000 citizens fled north, and another 35,000 headed south.
A photo posted by Tyler Fillywich (@notallducksquack) on May 3, 2016 at 4:33pm PDT
The Post’s Yanan Wang reports that residents were in shock as they watched flames engulf their town:
Carol Christian, who escaped with her son and cat, said reality set in as she drove from 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 Associated Press. “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 flames 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.”
Many people in surrounding cities offered shelter to the homeless on social media, using #ymmhelps.
Back in Fort McMurray, charred remains and ashy, polluted air are all that’s left in some areas. Entire houses are burned to the ground, and the only things left of cars and trucks are the metal frames.
Some neighborhoods are almost a total loss, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo — where Fort McMurray is located — said in a 4 a.m. update on Wednesday. The Beacon Hill area experienced an 80 percent loss of homes. Abasand and Waterways are both “serious losses.”
Officials are asking that people who evacuated to the north of Fort McMurray stay where they are on Wednesday.