Canada town remains under threat from 'catastrophic wildfires'

Firefighters in the western Canadian city of Fort McMurray are scrambling to contain a raging fire that has forced the evacuation of all 80,000 residents.
A helicopter flies into thick smoke while battling a major forest fire outside of Fort McMurray on May 4, 2016. P
A helicopter flies into thick smoke while battling a major forest fire outside of Fort McMurray on May 4, 2016. PPHOTO: REUTERS
An aerial view from the helicopter of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shows smoke rising from raging wildfires which caused the mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray.
An aerial view from the helicopter of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shows smoke rising from raging wildfires which caused the mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray. PHOTO: REUTERS
Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfire leave The Expo Centre after receiving supplies in Edmonton, Alberta.
Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfire leave The Expo Centre after receiving supplies in Edmonton, Alberta. PHOTO: REUTERS

EDMONTON (AFP) - The Canadian city of Fort McMurray remained under threat from catastrophic wildfires on Wednesday (May 4), authorities warned, after more than 80,000 residents were forced to flee the raging inferno sweeping through Alberta's oil sands region.

No casualties have been reported from the monster blaze, which lashed at residences and motor home parks, causing traffic chaos as people scrambled to safety.

But the authorities warned that the next 24 hours would be critical.

"This fire is absolutely devastating," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "It's a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine." Alberta emergency services announced shortly before midnight Tuesday that all of Fort McMurray, a city of about 100,000, was under a mandatory evacuation order.

 
 

Footage from the area overnight showed trees ablaze near highways crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic, while black smoke billowed as the flames ate away at buildings.

Mayor Melissa Blake said predictions of what would happen not only came true but were worse than imagined.

"This is a very explosive situation," warned Bernie Schmitte of Alberta's agriculture and forestry ministry. "These are catastrophic wildfires." The fire has destroyed some 2,000 residences in the city's most outlying districts and ravaged 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres), he said.

More than 80,000 have fled the city, located 400km north of the provincial capital Edmonton, according to Scott Long of Alberta's emergency management agency. The area around the airport is the only one not under an evacuation order.

Warning that the next 24 hours were critical, Schmitte launched an urgent appeal to the population as firefighters noted that winds were fanning the flames in various parts of the city.

"We are going to ask you to stay where you are so that we can utilize all roads," he said.

Nine air tankers, a dozen helicopters and some 250 firefighters were battling the flames, and the military was put on alert.

"Obviously, Fort McMurray being evacuated has been extremely difficult, not just for the province and officials, but for the folks who live there," Trudeau said.

The prime minister added he had spoken with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and offered her "our total support as a government to anything needed in the short-term but obviously anything in the long-term." Notley said that no casualties had been reported, noting that everything possible was being done to ensure the population's safety.

"I believe at this point we have the resources that we need and we are continuing to work very hard to get the fire under control," Notley told a news conference, adding that "the view from the air is heartbreaking."

Since 8:00 am (10:00pm Singapore time) Wednesday, flights to the city have been suspended.

Oil companies crucial to the region such as Suncor, Syncrude and Shell reduced operations to facilitate the evacuation of non-essential employees.

Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale, working in connection with the armed forces, said "a number of federal air assets are now positioned in the neighborhood" to help with evacuation.

The fire, which had been contained until Monday south of Fort McMurray, was pushed toward the city by winds of 50 kilometers per hour and quickly reached homes, helped by a drought in Alberta.

The province saw record temperatures of nearly 30 deg C.

The fire quickly expanded, with blazes forming in several places and forcing the city's evacuation.

City resident Russell Thomas told CBC television he found a "wall of fire" as he turned back from a gas station that exploded suddenly.

The evacuation has caused huge traffic jams, especially around gas stations where some drivers waited hours to fill their tanks. With some pumps in the 400 kilometers between Edmonton and Fort McMurray to the north empty, the Alberta government has said it sent a tanker under guard to help rescue stranded vehicles.

The authorities said the inferno had reached the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, only five kilometers from downtown Fort McMurray.

Seventy percent of homes there had been destroyed, they said.

In the Waterways neighbourhood, 90 per cent of homes have been lost.

Firefighters said houses had been damaged in all Fort McMurray neighborhoods and that numerous empty vehicles near wooded areas had gone up in flames.

A large motor home park had also been destroyed, leaving charred and smoldering remains, according to TV footage.

Oil companies had set up emergency shelters in their huge bungalow communities for Canadian and foreign workers.

These camps have been partially deserted for the past two years due to the drop in oil prices and the thousands of layoffs that followed.