Evacuation of 80,000 Fort McMurray residents impeded as wildfire rages

Fort McMurray wildfire affects some oil sands operations

Fort McMurray

Fort McMurray residents fleeing the out of control wildfire also had to deal with snarled traffic and fuel shortages.  CTV News Twitter photo.

By Topher Seguin

ANZAC, Alberta, May 4 (Reuters) – A raging wildfire that forced the evacuation of all 88,000 residents of the western Canadian city of Fort McMurray has destroyed 1,600 structures, ravaged one neighborhood, damaged others and halted incoming and outgoing commercial flights, authorities said on Wednesday.

The Canadian Red Cross is supporting the people of Fort McMurray forced from their homes by wildfire. Please click here to donate.

The Canadian Red Cross is supporting the people of Fort McMurray forced from their homes by wildfire. Please click here to donate.

“This is a nasty and dirty fire,” Chief Darby Allen of the Fort McMurray fire department told reporters of a blaze that has prompted the biggest evacuation ever in Canada’s Alberta province.

Fuel shortages and heavy traffic snarled the departure of residents from Fort McMurray, located in the northeastern part of the province of Alberta in the heart of Canada’s oil sands region.

Firefighters have not been able to bring the wildfire under control since it began on Sunday, and hot, dry winds forecast for later on Wednesday promised to complicate matters. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the military would deploy planes to help the stricken city if needed.

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While major oil sands facilities were not in the fire’s path, the blaze disrupted some operations. Royal Dutch Shell PLC said one of its oil sands mines was closed and another was in the process of being shut down. Suncor Energy Inc , whose oil sands operations are closest to the city, said it was reducing crude production.

Oil prices briefly rose on concerns about reduced output from the Canadian oil sands before paring gains on Wednesday.

The wildfire now covers about 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares), officials said. No injuries or deaths were reported.

“There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them and it will find them and it will want to take them. And our challenge today is to prevent,” Allen said.

Strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity will again create “explosive conditions” on Wednesday, said Bernie Schmitte, forestry manager in the nearby municipality of Wood Buffalo. Schmitte added that more resources are being assembled across Canada.

“The fire has resisted all suppression efforts,” Schmitte said.

Images from the neighborhood of Beacon Hill in the city’s southeast showed rows of charred house foundations, their upper stories burned to the ground, and blankets of white ash within. Officials said 80 percent of houses in the neighborhood, nearly 600 in total, were destroyed.

The regional government said two other neighborhoods, Abasand and Waterways, had sustained “serious loss.” Abasand is home to nearly 4,900 people, and Waterways more than 600, according to a 2015 municipal census.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said about 1,600 structures have been destroyed in Fort McMurray.

Fort McMurray International Airport said it was suspending all commercial flights in and out of the city on Wednesday.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state, said in a message that she and her husband Prince Philip were “shocked and saddened” by news of the fires.

REQUEST FOR AIRCRAFT

Brigadier General Wayne Eyre, the region’s top army officer, said four helicopters with a crew of about 15 were deployed to the area on Wednesday morning.

“We’ve been asked by the province to provide aircraft to support search and rescue, to assist provincial authorities in supporting evacuation of civilians,” he said.

Eyre added that the province has also asked the military to transport firefighters and their equipment.

The Canadian Red Cross said evacuees were calling the organization for help getting food and water.

“Because there were so many people on the move and it was such a quick evacuation, it’s quite normal to see hiccups around this,” said Jenn McManus, Canadian Red Cross vice president for Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

The regional government on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of all city residents, and the city had emptied but for some stragglers, officials said.

A highway closure on Tuesday forced most evacuees to drive north, away from major cities. By Wednesday morning, the highway had reopened, but fuel had run out, stranding evacuees seeking to drive out of Fort McMurray. Alberta’s transportation department said it was escorting a fuel tanker north to help stranded drivers.

It was the second major fire in the oil sands region in a year. Last May, wildfires led to the evacuation of hundreds of workers from the region, and a 9 percent cut in Alberta’s oil sands output.

In October 2007, a series of large wildfires in Southern California displaced nearly one million residents, destroyed over 3,000 homes and burned half a million acres, according to theCalifornia Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

(Reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary, Allison Martell, Ethan Lou, Andrea Hopkins and Fergal Smith in Toronto; Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham

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