UPDATE: A new article was published Tuesday afternoon when the Fort McMurray wildfire situation worsened. Follow this link to read the very latest information.
EDMONTON — The wildfire burning just outside Fort McMurray more than doubled in size Monday evening, and fire crews warned Tuesday’s weather conditions will likely be the greatest challenge yet.
Thick, ominous plumes of smoke filled the sky Monday night. But on Tuesday morning the sky was fairly clear. Officials said that didn’t mean the fire had died down, and explained how an inversion was holding the smoke close to the ground. That was expected to lift in the early afternoon, which is when smoke would begin appearing in 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.”
As of 8 p.m. Monday, the fire was 2,656 hectares, more than doubling in size from the 1,285 hectares surveyed at 5 p.m. Allen said while crews do regularly try to determine the fire’s size, their primary goal is keeping people safe and putting the fire out.
“The boreal forest is a fire-dependant ecosystem. The spruce trees, pine trees, they like to burn,” Bernie Schmitte, forestry manager in Fort McMurray, explained.
“They have to burn to regenerate themselves, and those species have adapted themselves to fire. Their cones have adapted so they open up after the fire has left, and the trees have adapted in that once they’re old and need to be replaced, they’re available to fire so they burn.”
The fire is still just over a kilometre away from the nearest home and has not caused any injuries or structure loss.
The main priority is putting out a five-hectare fire that jumped over the Athabasca River overnight. The second priority was working on the north flank of the fire.
A mandatory evacuation order for Centennial Trailer Park remained in effect Tuesday, along with a state of local emergency.
The mandatory evacuation order was lifted Monday night for about 500 people in the Prairie Creek area. The suburb, located south of Fort McMurray, saw hundreds of residents displaced over the weekend when the wildfire began to burn dangerously close.
Mayor Melissa Blake warned Prairie Creek residents that they could return home, but must “shelter in place” and be ready to leave again if necessary. “Shelter in place” is generally defined as using an indoor space to temporarily separate people from a dangerous outdoor atmosphere.
On Tuesday, Allen said officials won’t know if other parts of Fort McMurray will be in danger until later in the day, adding as fires grow in size, so too does their complexity.
Allen said all residents should have a plan in case they have to leave their homes at a moment’s notice.
“Don’t get up in the morning and think things are fine. It’s not fine,” he said.
A 24/7 evacuation reception centre was set up at MacDonald Island where officials were on site to help residents and their pets. Allen reminded evacuees they can sleep, get food and will be looked after there.
Watch below: Team coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire.
Manpower fighting the fires
Fire by the numbers:
- Fire is about 2,656 hectares in size;
- 80 firefighters actively working on fire;
- 7 helicopters assigned to drop water, but smoke is limiting their flying ability;
- 4 air tankers flying over fire;
- Heavier helicopter coming in to drop fire retardant;
Air quality advisory
Air quality continued to be a potential risk to residents and was subject to wind conditions. Environment Canada issued special air quality statements for parts of northeastern Alberta, including:
- Lac La Biche Co. near Crow Lake Prov. Park and Wiau Winefred and Grist Lakes;
- Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) near Fort MacKay and Wallace Creek;
- RMWB near Fort McMurray and Anzac;
- RMWB near Gipsy Lake and Whitemud Falls;
- RMWB near Grand Rapids Wildland Prov. Park;
- RMWB near Janvier South and Conklin;
- RMWB near Mariana Lake;
- RMWB near Stony Mtn Prov. Park and Engstrom Lake.
Smoke near the ground was expected to cause high health risk conditions. High levels of particulate matter (ash) may persist until the fire is extinguished or controlled.
Hot and dry weather conditions are forecasted through this week, with the temperature expected to reach the high 20s to low 30s until Thursday, when cloudiness will force temperatures back down into the teens. However, hot temperatures are expected again on the weekend.
Watch below: Smoke from wildfire near Fort McMurray spreads over city, and water bombers drop repellent to help tame the flames.
Monday fire activity
Schmitte said the southwest corner of the fire was most active and saw the most growth Monday. It was burning in a southwest direction, away from Fort McMurray.
Officials said that as long as it remains safe to do so, firefighters would be working with bulldozers through the night to construct a fire break between the tip of the fire and Highway 63.
Allen pleaded with citizens to take safety seriously.
On Monday he cited a “completely crazy” scene where a water bomber spotted a “jeep right alongside where the fire was burning.” People with ATVs and off-highway vehicles are being asked to stay away from backcountry trails.
“We can’t carry on dumping water when we know there are people down there because that’s dangerous from that height.”
How it started
Just before 10 p.m. Sunday, Blake declared a state of local emergency in Gregoire. At that time the mandatory evacuation was put in place for residents in Centennial Park, south of Airport Road (including Prairie Creek). Due to changing fire conditions, the mandatory evacuation notice for Gregoire was later reduced to a voluntary shelter in place.
An initial warning went out to some 4,000 residents over the supper hour Sunday night.
The cause of the wildfires in the area is not known.
Editor’s Note: This story was first published Sunday, May 1 when the fire began. It has been updated continuously as new information comes to light.