LAC LA BICHE, ALBERTA (REUTERS, AFP) - Some 4,000 people who fled the raging wildfire in central Canada and were in danger of becoming stranded have been airlifted to safety, officials said on Thursday (May 5) as the inferno exploded in size.
The evacuees from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray were flown to Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said, adding that the hope is to airlift 8,000 to safety by the end of the day and up to a total of 25,000 in time to come.
He said the evacuees face a long wait to return home as the damage from the blazes is major.
“Unfortunately, we do know that it will not be a matter of days,” she told a news conference. “I must be very, very direct about this,” she added. “It is apparent that the damage to the community in Ft. McMurray is extensive, and the city is not safe for residents at this time.”
Over the medium term, the authorities must work to find lodging for evacuees and some way to get children back in school in other cities, she said.
“I understand that the Albertans are scared, tired, and worried about their homes and what the future holds for themselves and their families,” Notley added. “Trust us that we have your back, that we will be there for you and that we will support you along the way.”
The out-of-control blaze has burned down entire neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray in Canada's energy heartland and forced a precautionary shutdown of some oil production, driving up global oil prices.
Three days after the residents were ordered to leave Fort McMurray, firefighters were still battling to protect homes, businesses and other structures from the flames. More than 1,600 structures, including hundreds of homes, have been destroyed.
Although the cause of the fire was unknown, officials said tinder-dry brush, low humidity and hot, gusting winds left crews unable to stop the flames.
The blaze, which erupted on Sunday, grew from 7,500ha on Wednesday to some 85,000ha on Thursday, an area roughly 10 times the size of Manhattan.
"What people in that region have gone through in the last couple of days is literally hell on earth," Rona Ambrose, leader of the opposition Conservative Party and an Albertan, fighting back tears as she addressed the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
Fire has intermittently blocked the only route south towards major cities, so thousands of evacuees fled north towards oil camps and a few small settlements but found themselves with no road route out.
"We're just sitting in a camp praying to get out!! Give us answers!!! Please," Twitter user @jennimac780 told the regional government. "We haven't forgotten about you and you're safe," the government said on Twitter.
Some 20,000 people were stranded in oil camps, makeshift shelters and on roadsides north of the city where the flames cut them off from Fort McMurray. Most of Alberta's oil sands facilities are north of the city and not in the path of the flames.
Evacuee Jason Blair said he only had enough time to grab a few belongings before driving north to a Canadian Natural Resources facility.
"For some reason, I really wanted my son's first pair of shoes," he told CBC television.
An airlift of evacuees began from oil facility airstrips on Thursday.
Canadian Natural Resources said it airlifted about 2,600 people over the last 24 hours to Edmonton and Calgary, including its own workers, to make room for more evacuees.
Frightened evacuees north of the city took to Twitter, asking when they would be able to drive south and whether areas to the north were safe.
The winds gave the city a brief reprieve on Thursday by driving the fire to the south-east, away from populated areas. But officials warned that the unpredictable weather could shift again.
The winds pushed flames towards the local airport, which suffered minor damage and was open for limited non-commercial operations, officials said.
A makeshift emergency operations centre at the airport was evacuated for the second time in less than a day.
At least 640,000 barrels per day of crude output is offline, according to Reuters calculations, roughly 16 per cent of Canada's crude production. The outage is expected to climb as major players in the region cut production.
The forecast has called for cooler temperatures and a possibility of rain, offering hope that controlling the blaze could become easier. Meteorologists put the chance of rain at 30 per cent on Thursday.
Authorities said there had been no known casualties from the blaze itself, but fatalities were reported in at least one vehicle crash along the evacuation route.