May 3, 2016 4:19 pm
Updated: May 5, 2016 11:35 am

All of Fort McMurray evacuated as wildfire intensifies

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Story highlights

UPDATE: All of Fort McMurray was put on mandatory evacuation alert 6:20 p.m. Tuesday

UPDATE: Evacuees are asked to go to the Suncor Firebag Site, Anzac or Insidio, where centres have been set up

UPDATE: Premier said this is the largest fire-related evacuation in Alberta's history

UPDATE: About 1,600 buildings have been destroyed by fire

NOTE: A new article has been posted with the latest information on the Fort McMurray wildfire situation. Click here for the latest. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 4, 4:55 a.m. MT:

Approximately 60,000 residents of Fort McMurray have been forced out because of a wildfire emergency according to an update provided by officials with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo at 10 p.m. MT Tuesday night.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray Wildfire: How many homes have been lost in the fire

Officials said fires were burning throughout different parts of the city and that Beacon Hill “appears to be lost”, one side of Abasand is believed to have been lost and that homes had been lost in Dickinsfield. They also said trailers in the Centennial Trailer Park are believed to have been lost.

Scroll down to follow along in our live blog

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire – Where to go if you’ve been evacuated 

The wildfire grew suddenly on Tuesday because of what Alberta Forestry spokesperson Bernie Schmitte described as “very explosive conditions.”

“Basically the fire behaviour was beyond all control efforts,” he said. “The worst of the fire is not over.”

Schmitte said 150 firefighters were currently battling the flames and that help was being brought in from across Canada.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire – Super 8 Hotel goes up in flames during live report

Incredibly, officials said they have no reports of any fatalities or serious injuries. At 10 p.m. MT, officials said they were not aware of any structures on fire in the downtown and that the areas most threatened by fire were in the northwest part of the city near Thickwood and Timberlea as well as Clearwater.

“Everything that was absolutely possible was done to protect this city,” Darby Allen, Wood Buffalo fire chief and director of emergency management in the area, said.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire – Flames erupt along Highway 63 during live Global News broadcast

Throughout the night, traffic continued to be incredibly busy on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray as people tried to make their way to safety.

Of the 53,000 people displaced, officials said 17,000 had travelled north and efforts are being made to find those evacuees accommodations in industry camps. Most evacuees had headed south: 18,000 are believed to be heading to Edmonton, 9,000 to Lac La Biche and 8,000 to Anzac.

Watch below: Of the approximately 53,000 people displaced by the Fort McMurray wildfire Tuesday, officials said 9,000 were expected to make their way to Lac La Biche for shelter. Sarah Offin reports on the influx of thousands of evacuees in a town of only about 2,900 residents.

They said Fort McMurray has run out of fuel and the next 24 hours will be focused on making sure everybody has safely left the evacuation zone, finding lodging for evacuees, tending to medical needs and helping stranded motorists on Highway 63 and Highway 881.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire – Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean loses his home

Officials said through the province, they have requested military support which they expect to arrive at some point before Friday and that a request has also been made for additional food supplies.

Backup satellite communication is being set up in the event cellphone signals are lost.

Officials said Melissa Blake, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, was unable to attend the media briefing because she was stuck in traffic.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire residents take to social media as situation worsens 

As of 6:20 p.m., all of Fort McMurray is under a mandatory evacuation order including MacDonald Island.

The mandatory evacuation order means that about 53,000 people who live in Fort McMurray are being told to flee the city. Evacuees stranded on highway 63 were asked to stay put Tuesday evening unless they were in imminent danger. Police were patrolling the highway with gas cans.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire – Evacuee goes into labour after fleeing home

Scott Long of Alberta Emergency Management said the flames have burned a number of structures, but he couldn’t say how many. One hotel was seen engulfed in flames. Residents reported hearing explosions coming from gas stations as they tried to leave.

As of 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, the following Fort McMurray neighbourhoods has suffered damage:

  • Beacon Hill: significant damage
  • Abasand: light damage
  • Wood Buffalo: light damage
  • Dickensfield: light damage
  • Waterways: light damage

Listen below: 630 CHED is providing ongoing live coverage of the state of emergency in Fort McMurray.

While the situation escalated quickly Tuesday, Alberta’s Assistant Deputy Minister of Forestry Bruce Mayer said Wednesday’s forecast didn’t sound promising for conditions to improve.

“Tomorrow when the cold front comes in, middle to late day, the winds will be switched from the west heading east, or from the northwest heading southeast. It’ll be gusting anywhere from 25 to 50 kilometres,” Mayer said Tuesday afternoon.

“Tomorrow is expected to be a more intense burning day than today is.”

The hospital in Fort McMurray – the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre – was being evacuated at 5:20 p.m. and by 8 p.m., AHS said it had evacuated all patients there: 73 acute care patients and 32 continuing care patients. AHS said all those patients are being flown to Edmonton health care facilities to receive care.

“Those patients and clients are now being looked after at an oilsands site north of Fort McMurray, and are currently out of danger,” AHS said in a statement just after 11 p.m. MT. “AHS has arranged to have a 737 plane airlift those patients and clients from the oilsands site. That flight is expected to take place late tonight.”

AHS said it has capacity in other zones to care for the displaced patients and continuing care clients.

Family members looking to find out information on loved ones in hopsitals and clinics are asked to call Health Link (811).

As of 5 p.m. Noralta Lodge’s village location was full. If residents are south of the Suncor overpass, they can proceed to the Horizon North BlackSands Lodge. If they are north of the Suncor overpass, they should head to the Firebag Site, northeast of Fort McMurray, which is open to evacuees.

“We are working with the municipality to ensure we can get them a place to sleep tonight,” Blaire McCalla said.

The MacDonald Island evacuation centre was being evacuated by 5:15 p.m.

Those under evacuation notice are told not to go home. Pet owners are asked to notify the reception area at the evacuation centres.

More information can be found on the RM of Wood Buffalo’s website.

By 2:30 the fire had crossed over to Beacon Hill and into Fort McMurray. By 3:44 p.m. the Global News crews had to move out as the flames spread to Highway 63. At 4:15 p.m. black plumes of smoke could be seen amongst the red and orange wildfire flames, which could indicate homes or other buildings being burned.

By 5:45 p.m. at least one resident has posted a message online saying her home had been destroyed.

WATCH: Raw video from Global News crews on the ground in Fort McMurray as a hotel burns and a gas station is destroyed

Between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m., Alberta Emergency Alerts said the north edge of the fire was “growing rapidly.” The municipality said Highway 63 southbound was closed at Mackenzie Boulevard. Highway 63 was closed at the Highway 881 intersection south of Fort McMurray.

Premier Rachel Notley said her heart goes out to those impacted by the wildfire.

“I know it’s a very scary time. I know it’s a very, very stressful time for people to be having to leave their homes under these conditions. Our focus is completely and entirely right now on ensuring the safety of people, of getting them out of the city and ensuring they are safe and secure.”

“I would simply urge everybody to follow the encouragement of officials, of the RCMP, the sheriffs who are on the ground,” she added. “As frustrating and as scary as it is to leave your home, it’s not as frustrating and scary as to find that you’re trapped by your home if the fire changes direction.”

Ralph Goodale, federal minister of emergency preparedness, said he had spoken to the Alberta government to “assure all support.” Goodale said the federal government’s operations centre and Department of National Defence was “fully engaged” and standing by to provide assistance if needed.

The Red Cross told Global News it is currently working with the Ministry of Human Services to coordinate its response and expects to have a plan in effect later Tuesday evening.

It said 200 trained volunteers are able to deploy immediately and that it is asking Canadians who want to donate to do so online.

The Red Cross has set up a family reunification number for Fort McMurray evacuees: 1-888-350-6070.

The social media giant Facebook activated its Safety Check feature which is aimed at letting people quickly inform friends and family they are safe during events like natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Global News meteorologist Anthony Farnell said the conditions in Fort McMurray have been prime to fuel the fire. Farnell said humidity had dropped to just 15 per cent by late Tuesday afternoon as the temperature soared to a record-breaking high of 32 C.

“Firefighters use this 30-30-30 rule. It involves temperature, humidity and wind speed. When they’re all around 30, it’s bad news,” Farnell said. “That is what we have seen throughout the day.”

But the forecast may only worsen Wednesday, with no rain in sight, even stronger winds and temperatures predicted to remain above 30 C.

“This is going to be a rough 48 hours coming up,” Farnell warned.

“Houses can be replaced, clothes can be replaced,” resident Rita Knelson said. “We just want to make sure everyone is safe.

“It’s bad. This isn’t just a little fire. This could affect our whole community,” she said. “A huge shoutout to all the firefighters. I can’t imagine how exhausted they must be.”

“As I was driving south in my car there was actually people abandoning their vehicles on the side of the road and got out and were running and left their vehicles on the side of the road,” resident Tina Briere said.

“It got to the point I couldn’t see. I was going like 100 kilometres an hour through the smoke. My vehicle was totally hot. I didn’t know if it was going to blow up or not. I could see the ashes and the sparks from the fire blowing across the road and everyone is in panic. You can see everyone on their phones and it’s just panic.”

WATCH: Most dramatic video from the Fort McMurray wildfires

Amanda, a teacher, was driving out of downtown Fort McMurray once the mandatory evacuation was issued.

“It all changed really quickly,” she said. “You can’t go south… North is the furthest away from where the fire is,” she said. “It’s highly recommended that everyone just head north.”

Firefighters from Strathcona County said they received a call Tuesday afternoon to head up to assist with the wildfire. Ten firefighters from three trucks were set to head up to the region Tuesday evening.

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services is sending 18 firefighters, two pumps and two tankers to assist. They are leaving at approximately 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The City of Leduc told Global News it has also sent a fire truck and four firefighters to Fort McMurray to assist with the situation.

The RCMP issued a news release Tuesday evening to say detachments from across Alberta are working to help the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Emergency Operations Centre (REOC) with its response to the fires. The RCMP said its main role is primarily to help the REOC’s search and rescue and evacuation efforts.

The Alberta RCMP will issue once daily updates on the RCMP role in this emergency effort at 3:00 p.m., daily.

The Edmonton Police Service said it also deployed four marked EPS cruisers to Fort McMurray in order to escort Edmonton Fire Service crews headed to the disaster zone.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: politicians, athletes react to emergency on social media 

The Fort McMurray International Airport remained open Tuesday night for departing passengers booked on flights. Airlines said they were monitoring the situation closely.

WestJet cancelled all flights between Fort McMurray and Edmonton. The airline said it was sending up a “ferry flight” to pick up some people trying to get back to Edmonton.

Air Canada told Global News all of its flights out of Fort McMurray departed Tuesday evening but that the airline was still reviewing whether it would operate out of the airport Wednesday.

“As the situation is very fluid, we are reviewing demand requirements for tomorrow departing Fort McMurray, and will finalize overnight whether or not we add additional or larger aircraft when we understand the safety of operating flights in,” an email from Air Canada read.

Air Canada said all inbound flights to Fort McMurray have been cancelled and any new aircraft that might be brought in to help get people out would be ferried in. They also said they were taking steps to help passengers rebook flights.

“We have a flexible rebooking policy in place until the end of the week enabling passengers booked to fly to or from Fort McMurray to rebook without penalty, space permitting.”

Shell told Global News its operations have not been impacted but it has opened up its camp at Albian Village for displaced staff and their families.

Cenovus said its operations were also not impacted.

On its Twitter account, Syncrude Canada Ltd. tweeted that dayshift buses would not be departing from the site at 4:30 pm and that it would provide more information soon.

Syncrude also posted a tweet asking employees who were at work to stay at their location until further notice.

Suncor Energy said its plant located 25 kilometres north of Fort McMurray was in safe condition but that it was reducing production to allow employees and their families to get to safety.

Suncor employees can call the Suncor Family Response line at 1-877-285-4600.

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READ MORE: ‘We are in for a rough day’: Fort McMurray wildfire expected to flare up Tuesday afternoon 

The wildfire burning just outside Fort McMurray more than doubled in size Monday evening, reaching 2,600 hectares and fire crews warned Tuesday’s weather conditions will likely be the greatest challenge yet.

An inversion was holding the smoke close to the ground Tuesday morning, which created less smoke. But that lifted in the early afternoon, when smoke and flames flooded the sky again.

“The fire conditions are extreme,” Darby Allen, regional fire chief for the Wood Buffalo municipality, said during an 11 a.m. update Tuesday, talking about how the fire will “wake up.”

“The humidity levels are going to be decreased quicker because the ambient temperature is hotter, so that means the fire will be able to go more ferociously and quicker than in days previously.”

A state of local emergency remained in effect Tuesday and Centennial Trailer Park was still under a mandatory evacuation.

A fire restriction was put in place Tuesday afternoon for all of Alberta’s Forest Protection Areas. The fire restriction prohibits all open fires, including campfires on private land, backcountry areas and camping areas. Safe wood campfires are allowed in designated campgrounds.

All fire permits are suspended or cancelled and no new fire permits will be issued.

The fire danger was listed as either very high or extreme throughout the majority of Alberta Tuesday afternoon.

Courtesy: Natural Resources Canada

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