Wildfire evacuation order issued for parts of Fort McMurray

Click to play video: 'Wildfire evacuation order issued for several Fort McMurray neighbourhoods'
Wildfire evacuation order issued for several Fort McMurray neighbourhoods
Hundreds of residents in four neighbourhoods in the southern end of Fort McMurray have been ordered to evacuate as a wildfire threatens the northern Alberta community. Sarah Ryan has the latest details as of Tuesday evening and Phil Darlington shares what to expect from the weather over the next 24 hours. – May 14, 2024

This is an older story. For the latest on the Fort McMurray wildfire situation, visit this post.

Residents of several neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray have been ordered to leave their homes as a wildfire rages out-of-control south of the community — triggering memories of the devastating fire eight years ago.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued the order at 2 p.m. Tuesday for the Beacon Hill, Abasand, Prairie Creek, and Grayling Terrace communities.

Regional fire chief Jody Butz said residents in the four neighbourhoods were being ordered out to clear room for crews to fight the fire, which had moved to within 7.5 kilometres of the Fort McMurray landfill.

About 6,600 residents were told they must leave their homes by 4 p.m. All evacuees should register online through the MyAlberta Emergency Registration System (MAERS).

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About 68,000 people live in the city.

Click to play video: 'Anxious wildfire evacuees ‘waiting and waiting’ as flames inch closer to homes'
Anxious wildfire evacuees ‘waiting and waiting’ as flames inch closer to homes

The fire grew rapidly throughout the day: at 7 p.m., Alberta Wildfire said the MWF017 wildfire was 20,940 hectares.

That’s nearly double the size from the 4 p.m. update, when officials said it was about 11,000 hectares — up from 9,602 hectares in the morning. (That was about 3,000 hectares larger than it was on Sunday evening.)

Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josee St-Onge said the fire has grown in size and towards the northeast since the last estimate. She said wind is pushing it towards the town of Fort McMurray.

When the emergency alerts were issued in the early afternoon, the fire was estimated to be about 13.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill but “smoke is impacting visibility” and making it difficult to determine accurate distances.

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A later update said the flames were 7.5 kilometres from the landfill and 6.5 kilometres from the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881 — the main roads south out of Fort McMurray.

The MWF017 wildfire near Fort McMurray at 7 p.m. on May 14, 2024. Alberta Wildfire

The winds from the southwest of up to 40 km/h are “not favourable,” St-Onge explained.

“We’re seeing extreme fire behaviour,” she said. “Smoke columns are developing.”

Fire activity is increasing on the northeastern edge of the wildfire, driven by 20 km/h winds gusting to 40 km/h from the southwest. Thick smoke is blanketing the area.

Firefighters have been pulled from fire lines for safety reasons, St-Onge said, but aerial attack continues.

“We understand this is a very stressful time for the community. We are doing everything we can,” she added.

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Click to play video: 'Outlook on the state of Canada’s Wildfires'
Outlook on the state of Canada’s Wildfires

Butz said crews are confident they can defend the neighbourhoods from fire but need people “out of harm’s way” so they can focus their efforts.

He encouraged Fort McMurray residents to give those under evacuation order time and space to get out before leaving themselves, by choice, later.

Sara Spears lives just a couple of kilometres away from the area that’s under evacuation order. She said her family has their camper ready to go at a moment’s notice.

“Just trying to stay calm. Just trying to stay put, which is hard. There’s a lot of people trying to leave that shouldn’t be leaving yet and it’s causing issues.

“Of course, everybody is scared and this is scary. I just think everybody wants to get out. It’s hard because those people are on an order and they need to leave first.”

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Spears said she’s noticed the sky change over the course of Tuesday.

“It’s gone from red, yellow, orange to black and then to greyish. So, I feel like it’s moving. I don’t know which direction.”

Fort McMurray wildfire from Abasand area on May 14, 2024. Courtesy/Marina Barnes

Marina Barnes, who’s lived in Fort McMurray for four years, was also alerted by the sky.

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“I woke up this morning and through the window — you can see all over town, I can see over the highway — and it was just completely filled with smoke.

“It was unreal. It was very hard to breathe… The sky was just completely black and then orange, pure orange. You could see the flames in the smoke cloud.”

Barnes said she went into work before being sent home — her neighbourhood was given two hours to prepare to leave.

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“It did take us a good two hours, maybe a bit more, to get out of town. And just to get out of my area, Abasand … we probably spent a good hour just trying to get out of my neighbourhood,” she said.

Barnes and her friend are driving to Lac La Biche with their pets where there is accommodation.

“I think the worst part, though, is the unknown — not knowing if you’re going to go back to your home.”

Highway 63 and evacuation centre information

Highway 63 southbound remains open, and evacuation centres are operating in Lac La Biche, Cold Lake and Edmonton.

The northbound lanes of Highway 63 from Atmore to Fort McMurray were closed Tuesday afternoon to help facilitate wildfire evacuations, 511 Alberta posted on social media.

That was later expanded to include Highway 63 northbound between Highway 881 and Saprae Creek Trail (Highway 69).

The municipality said anyone currently outside of Fort McMurray who was planning to return is being asked to delay their travel plans until Wednesday.

“The highway is heavily congested with fire suppression efforts, and the increased smoke poses significant risks. Smoke could impact visibility on Highway 63 this evening, and there is congestion in the Northbound lanes as firefighting equipment is accessing the community,” the RMWB posted on Facebook.

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Edmonton evacuation centre

The City of Edmonton opened an evacuation centre Tuesday night at the Clareview Community Recreation Centre (3804 139 Avenue.)

The city said it is accepting evacuees from the Fort McMurray communities of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek.

The reception centre will provide all immediate needs for evacuees including food services, clothing, pet day care and health care. Red Cross will be onsite to coordinate hotel accommodations. Evacuees can bring their pets inside, and are encouraged to not leave animals in vehicles.

Edmontonians are asked not to bring donations of any kind to the reception centre. Donations and volunteers are not needed at this time.

Lac La Biche and Cold Lake reception centres

The RMWB said at 7 p.m. the evacuation accommodations in Lac La Biche are now full, with the exception of RV and camping lots.

“If you are an evacuee from an area that is under an evacuation order and require food and accommodation, please report to the new reception centre at the Cold Lake Agriplex located at 4608 38th Avenue,” the statement said.

Those with RVs and campers who want to stay in Lac La Biche were told to check in at the Parkland Two reception centre to access a lot.

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Cold Lake is located 147 kilometres southeast of Lac La Biche via Highway 36 and Highway 55.

Meteoblue web cameras around the Fort McMurray airport show lines of vehicles on Highway 63 and in the Thickwood area.

Meteoblue traffic camera for Fort McMurray airport shows traffic on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
Meteoblue traffic camera for Fort McMurray airport shows traffic on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Credit: Meteoblue traffic camera
Orange skies over Fort McMurray on May 14, 2024. Courtesy/Choi Villa Nueva

Same area, different type of fire from 2016

Butz said this fire is not the same as the one that forced the entire city out in 2016.

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That wildfire — dubbed “the beast” — was fuelled by C-6 materials, Butz explained, old “Crown” vegetation and mature Boreal forest that had gone unburnt for years and years.

The 2016 fire destroyed 2,400 homes and forced more than 80,000 to flee. The Beacon Hill and Abasand neighbourhoods experienced severe losses.

This ground fire is being fuelled by dead and downed trees — the same that burnt eight years ago — as well as some dry grass. Butz called it a “surface fire.”

The fire had not crossed the Athabasca River and there was not “a major concern of that happening” Tuesday, Butz said.

“This surface fire mixed in with some muskeg is really generating a lot of smoke.”

He also said the region is more prepared for wildfire this time around. They have experience and have adopted a FireSmart program, creating separations between neighbourhoods.

Wood Buffalo Mayor Sandy Bowman thanked residents for staying calm.

“This is a completely different fire but still brings back those same traumatic feelings (from 2016),” Bowman said.

Butz said there are about 250 to 300 firefighters ready to help — and that’s outside the Alberta Wildfire forestry fire crews.

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Butz said there are seven different fire departments — Fort McMurray’s and six rural ones — with about 146 full-time firefighters and 80 volunteer firefighters. He said industry partners bring about 50-60 firefighters as well.

“Inside the community, our municipal firefighters, along with mutual aid partners in industry, we’re setting up defences between the forest and structures,” he said. “In that space, we’re not going anywhere and we won’t back down.”

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Canada wildfires: Be ready ‘for anything’ after telecom lines damaged by flames, official warns

An evacuation alert remains in effect for the rest of Fort McMurray, Saprae Creek, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation #468, Anzac, and Rickards Landing Industrial Park.

The two-hour evacuation alert means that residents must be ready to leave with two hours’ notice if the situation changes and an evacuation order is issued.

“I’m not anticipating us to have another evacuation. But if the time does come, I ask that you listen to the areas that are being evacuated because there is thought and strategy behind that,” Butz said at a Tuesday evening council meeting.

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The municipality said it was aware of people trying to leave when they were not under an evacuation order.

“While you are welcome to leave at your own discretion, we kindly ask that you allow those under an evacuation order to leave first,” it posted on Facebook. 

More information on the areas that are under evacuation alert is available on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s website.

Bowman said he was in contact with the premier and MLAs to make sure all the resources that are available to the region are sent there.

He said some people will be experiencing trauma connected to the 2016 wildfire.

“The community is here behind you. We want to make sure you’re safe.”

The Fort McMurray Public School Division and Catholic Schools said Tuesday afternoon that all schools would be closed for the remainder of the week (May 15-17).

Road closure at Atmore and Highway 63 on the way to Fort McMurray May 14, 2024. Nicole De Donato/Global News

Premier Danielle Smith said evacuation payments are in place again just as they were last year.

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“We’ve allowed for, after seven days being evacuated, $1,250 per adult, as well as $600 per child,” she said. “That has been something that’s already been approved by cabinet.”

Fort McMurray hospital impacts

She said the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and emergency management committee will meet Tuesday evening.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said while the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre was not being evacuated, buses are ready in case it does need to be.

“AHS is evacuating 21 patients at this time based on their more complex needs… from various continuing care and acute care settings, not all from the hospital.”

Alberta Health Services said Northern Lights Regional Health Centre and Willow Square Continuing Care Centre remain open. Emergency services remain available, and care continues to be provided.

AHS said its Fort McMurray Recovery Centre is within the evacuation order area. Staff and clients have been relocated and the facility is temporarily closed.

Alberta Wildfire information

For the latest information on which areas in Alberta are under an evacuation alert or order due to a wildfire, visit the Alberta Emergency Alert website.

For the latest information on the wildfire status and danger across the province, visit the Alberta Wildfire website.

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The latest information on fire advisories, restrictions and bans across the province can be found on the Alberta fire bans website.

Click to play video: 'Alberta Wildfires: How to prepare for evacuation'
Alberta Wildfires: How to prepare for evacuation

— With files from The Canadian Press and Ken MacGillivray, Global News

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