MONTREAL, May 4 — The 100,000 residents of the Canadian city of Fort McMurray were ordered to leave town today as a monster wildfire swept through the oil sands region, in Alberta province’s largest ever evacuation.
No casualties have yet been reported but gas stations exploded and a hotel and one of the town’s many motor home parks went up in flames, according to local media.
The air was thick with black smoke.
“I know that it’s a very scary time,” Alberta premier Rachel Notley told a press conference.
“Our focus is completely and entirely right now on ensuring the safety of people, of getting them out of the city and ensuring that they are safe and secure.”
Authorities urged residents to head toward evacuation centers as the city reeled from what Notley called the province’s largest evacuation.
“All of Fort McMurray is under a mandatory evacuation order,” Alberta emergency services announced, after previously indicating that the northern edge of the fire was “growing rapidly”.
The airport was still open but the hospital had to close.
“Seek medical attention if you experience breathing difficulties,” emergency services said.
Long lines of cars traveled north via the main highway of the city, while flames ravaged the embankment on the side of the road.
Police closed the southbound lanes.
“Be patient, drive safely and please give way to emergency vehicles,” an evacuation notice read.
The fire, which was contained until Monday south of Fort McMurray, was pushed toward the city by winds of 50kph and quickly reached homes, helped by a drought in Alberta.
The province saw record temperatures of nearly 30º Celsius.
The fire quickly expanded, with blazes forming in several places and thus forcing the city’s evacuation.
Bruce Mayer, assistant deputy minister of agriculture and forestry, said nine airtankers, a dozen helicopters and about a hundred firefighters were battling the flames, with reinforcements on the way.
Some 160 police officers were mobilized to implement the evacuation, according to Notley.
Wall of fire
Oil companies, crucial to the region’s economy, 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.
Russell Thomas told CBC television he found a “wall of fire” as he turned back from a gas station that exploded suddenly.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had called Notley to offer federal aid to the province.
“My thoughts are with people affected by the fire in Fort McMurray tonight. Stay safe and remember to follow evacuation orders,” he tweeted.
“We stand ready to help.”
Notley said she was seeking airlift operation capability from the federal government.
“Obviously, the first priority would be the people with medical problems and our priority would be to bring them to other medical facilities,” she said.
A more limited alert earlier saw authorities evacuate 30,000 people.
On Monday, some 500 people were evacuated under an initial alert due to smoke from the wildfire. — AFP