The fire raging through the Canadian province of Alberta has grown into a behemoth blaze that has consumed an area bigger than New York City.
Alberta officials warned Thursday that the inferno, which forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray, could grow even larger because “conditions are still tinder dry.”
“Because so much of this is dependent on the weather … that means that certainty is not a feature of any statements at this point,” provincial premier Rachel Notley said when asked if the worst of the fire was over. “Until we’ve got it under control, it would not be responsible to make any declarations.”
Notley said the fire has already scorched 85,000 hectares — or 328 square miles. For point of comparison, all five boroughs of New York City add up to 304.6 square miles.
There was a chance of rain in the forecast Thursday for Fort McMurray. But it appeared a deluge was needed to stop the intense wildfire that has already forced some 88,000 people to flee and destroyed more than 1,600 homes and buildings.
While more than 1,000 firefighters frantically battled the blaze, officials declared a state of emergency across the entire province of Alberta.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his country’s House of Commons that the government will match all donations to the Red Cross relief effort for the fire refugees.
“We will make it through this most difficult time together,” he said.
Meanwhile, escapees from the blaze counted their blessings — and feared for the future.
“I just have a few clothes and valuables I could fit into a small suitcase and left,” said Ian Seggie, who drove himself and some friends 467 miles south to Calgary — a seven-hour trip that took 14 hours because the highway was clogged with escapees. “It was a priority to get ourselves out.”
Ryan Cox said he had just 45 minutes to pack a bag and get his wife Amanda and 2-year-old son Malcolm out of their townhouse.
“By the time we had gotten everything together, that was when the evacuation notice came,” said Cox, now bunking in a hotel in Edmonton, some 280 miles south of the the fires. “Then when we had to drive through the valley I blew a tire, so I gunned it with a flat through downtown.”
With the flames just 200 feet away, Cox said he pulled over his 2007 Ford Focus to change the tire — something he had never done before.
Luckily, said Cox, another motorist helped him and soon they found themselves fleeing through a frightening landscape that reminded him of the “Mad Max” movies and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Remarkably, there were no official reports of casualties except for a vehicle collision that Alberta Emergency Management Agency director Scott Long said hadn’t been confirmed as caused by the fire.
Canadian government meteorologists said there was only a 30 percent chance of showers in Fort McMurray on Thursday followed by more of the dry and windy conditions.
Meanwhile, Fort McMurray burned and the “heartbreaking” blaze spread to the oil camps outside of town, forcing the refugees who had sought shelter there to once again cut and run.
Local officials also announced a mandatory evacuation late Wednesday of the communities of Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation — which are roughly 30 miles south of Fort McMurray.
“The fires that are surrounding Fort McMurray right now could go in any direction,” teary-eyed Alberta lawmaker Brian Jean told CTV. “My home is burnt to the ground but it’s just stuff. All my stuff, all my memories. I lost a son last year…”
All flights had already been canceled to and from the city, which lies among the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
The blaze has effectively cut Fort McMurray in two, forcing about 10,000 to flee north to the safety of oil sands work camps while the other 70,000 head southward towards Edmonton and Calgary down Highway 63.
But all around there were scorched trucks, charred homes, and telephone poles burned out from the bottom up adorned with dangling wires.
The evacuation was “just crazy,” oil worker Victor Howald told CTV. “There were people pulled over in ditches, thousands of pickups without fuel. It felt like the apocalypse.”
He added: “It was just raining ashes and you can’t see. You couldn’t see anything. There was only police cars and sirens going around trying to clear people out.”
Shell said it has shut down production at its Shell Albian Sands mining operations near the city in order to focus on getting families out of the region. Suncor, the largest oil sands operator, said it is reducing production at its regional facility — about 15 miles north of the city. Many other companies evacuated non-essential staff.
Oil prices jumped early Thursday, Reuters reported, noting that prices were also affected by escalating fighting in Libya. International benchmark Brent crude futures were trading at $45.36 per barrel at 2.54 a.m. ET, up 74 cents or 1.7 percent from their last close, after three days of declining prices, it reported.
The evacuation of Fort McMurray, which was ordered early Tuesday, was the biggest in the history of Alberta.