A catastrophic wildfire continued to devour neighborhoods in the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, after some 88,000 residents were safely evacuated in a moment’s notice to flee the encroaching flames, officials said.
The fire has scorched more than 24,700 acres — just over the size of the island of Manhattan — since Sunday in this rural community in Canada’s Alberta province. About 1,600 structures have been gutted, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters.
“This is a nasty, dirty fire,” Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen added.
“There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned. But this fire will look for them, it will find them and it will want to take them,” he warned.
About 250 firefighters were on the ground to beat back the blaze a day after long lines of cars filled highways to get out of town. Burning debris could be seen falling onto the roads as walls of smoke and fire filled the distance.
Some residents had just a half-hour to pick up their belongings and leave, officials said. There were no reported injuries or deaths.
A cause of the wildfire has not yet been determined, but unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. 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 has 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 are reported in the Abasand and Waterways suburbs. Some homes have been lost in four other neighborhoods.
Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake called the fire a “multi-headed monster.”
She asked residents to “stay strong, stay safe — be the brave people I know that you are.”
Allen earlier had said that parts of wooded areas of the city are still burning but no structures were currently on fire.
Firefighters meanwhile were working to protect critical infrastructure, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only major route to the city in or out. The downtown remains largely untouched.
“It’s a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town,” said Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
Forestry manager Bernie Schmitte said 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 he is watching the situation with “great concern” and said “situation is fluid and evolving rapidly.”
Notley called it the biggest evacuation in the history of the province.
While the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added that it is “absolutely devastating” and said there’s a loss on a scale that’s hard to imagine.
He encouraged Canadians to support friends and donate to the Red Cross.
“We will be there for them,” Trudeau said, adding that the military aircraft are being mobilized to help fight the blaze.
Allen said he’s not aware of any threat to any of the nearby oil facilities but called the fire a “moving animal.”
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.
The Regional Municipality of Wood earlier said evacuees who are north of Fort McMurray should stay north because they are safe. Notley said about 10,000 evacuees moved north.
The Red Cross anticipates about 18,000 to 20,000 evacuees could head for Alberta’s capital region of Edmonton to the south, an agency official for Alberta, Jenn McManus, told NBC News.
Former National Hockey League player Doug Sulliman said he could see from his apartment balcony that both sides of the highway south were engulfed in flames and estimated hundreds of homes in Beacon Hill suburb over the hill were destroyed.
“You could hear the pop, pop, pop because of the propane tanks. The fire was just consuming these houses. It just destroyed the whole community,” he told The Associated Press.
He decided the best place to stay was the apartment, but he was forced out three hours later.
“I woke up just in time,” he said. “Smoke had come into the apartment, but not bad. When I opened the door to the hallway it was burning my eyes and when I went outside it was burning my throat.”
He said the highway opened and it was bumper to bumper and said there were many cars on the side of the road because service stations were out of fuel. He said RV campsites were destroyed.
“There was a Shell gas station that blew up and a Denny’s next door. There was nothing but the foundation and it was still smoldering in flames,” Sulliman said.