GREGOIRE LAKE (Alberta) • Thousands of people fleeing wildfires in a remote Canadian oil town faced shortages of fuel and food, but the frantic evacuation also brought stories of shared resources and babies born in work camps.
The fire that forced the evacuation of all 88,000 people in the western town of Fort McMurray in Alberta province, 400km north of the provincial capital Edmonton, not only has the potential to destroy much of it, but also is now threatening its airport and communities well south of the town, the authorities said on Wednesday.
With a few neighbourhoods in ruins, worsening fire conditions on Wednesday pushed walls of flames towards thousands more homes. The winds also pushed flames towards the local airport, with webcam images showing black smoke engulfing it on Wednesday evening. Officials confirmed a hotel had caught fire. The fires also forced the evacuation of Saprae Creek, a neighbourhood east of the airport that until now had been out of danger. Even its fire station was pulled out.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said about 1,600 structures had been destroyed in Fort McMurray, as the province declared a state of emergency for what was shaping up to be Canada's costliest natural disaster. "It is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town," said Mr Scott Long, an official with Alberta's emergency management agency.
"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."
As flames fanned south, officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for the Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation communities located about 50km south of Fort McMurray.
Officials were forced to evacuate their makeshift emergency operations centre for the second time in less than a day as the flames spread.
The authorities said there had been no known casualties from the blaze itself, but fatalities were reported in at least one car crash among the evacuees. Stretches of the highway had been converted into makeshift campgrounds by people in vehicles who were fleeing the inferno. Thousands bunked down in arenas, hockey rinks and oil work camps, often short of fuel and food.
A highway closure on Tuesday forced most evacuees to drive north, away from major cities. By the next morning, it had reopened, but fuel had run out, leaving evacuees stranded. Twitter was full of offers of food, housing and animal care. Two babies were born at one evacuation centre on Tuesday. Alberta's transport department said it was escorting a fuel tanker north to help stranded drivers. Mr Trudeau said the military could deploy air force planes to the stricken city as needed.
Crews, meanwhile, had been unable to stop the fire, which has charred 7,500ha since it erupted on Sunday and exploded in ferocity.
Wildfires were also raging in neighbouring British Columbia on Wednesday, including a 9,000ha blaze that was threatening to spread across the border to Alberta, the province's Wildfire Service said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE