Residents of Fort McMurray were issued a mandatory evacuation notice at 6:25 p.m. local time Tuesday evening – told to leave the city to escape the wildfire.
It’s a massive evacuation, the largest in Alberta’s history. 88,000 people have been evacuated so far, according to Alberta emergency officials.
READ MORE: Where to go if you’ve been evacuated
In the evacuation order, residents of Gregoire were asked to evacuate south of Fort McMurray. Everyone else was asked to evacuate north and to go to Noralta Lodge for further instructions.
According to the Wood Buffalo municipality Tuesday evening, 17,000 people were north of the city. 8,000 were in Anzac, 9,000 in Lac La Biche and 18,000 in Edmonton.
In Edmonton, the Expo Centre was converted into an emergency shelter. They have accommodation for roughly 1,300 people there. The drive from Fort McMurray to Edmonton took much longer than usual, evacuees told Global News. What is normally a 5-hour drive took as long as 10 hours. Some people flew from Fort McMurray to Edmonton and then were bussed from the airport to the Expo Centre.
Miranda Sneddon had been on “standby” since Sunday, with a bag packed next to the door, she said. But when she heard Tuesday that her parents were being evacuated, she decided to give them back the truck she had borrowed. She loaded her three young children into the truck, assuming that she would switch vehicles with her parents and be back home shortly.
That didn’t happen. “As soon as I hit town, it’s dark, there are ashes, there’s embers falling,” she said. She met up with family and as soon as they heard the highway south was open, they decided to make a run for it – quickly loading up the extended family into a small five-vehicle convoy.
“We left with the clothes on our backs. My youngest didn’t even have shoes on because I was like, ‘You’re not going to be getting out of the truck. Here, get in.’”
She was on the road for seven hours, driving to her cousin’s house in Athabasca. It was a harrowing trip. “When we were trying to drive out of town, there were flames happening on both sides of us. The smoke, it was almost pitch-black. You couldn’t see anything. You could barely see the vehicles in front of you.”
She and her children stayed in Athabasca overnight and planned to drive to Edmonton on Wednesday, where they will stay with family. She’s already received lots of offers of help. “I’ve already had a lot of friends reach out to me, saying, ‘As soon as you figure out where you are, we can send clothes for the kids.’ I’ve already had friends email me money so I can get gas,” she said.
She expects that they will be staying in Edmonton at least until the end of the week. She’s not sure what they will return home to though. She thinks that there will be, “A whole lot of nothing left.”
In the meantime though, she says her kids are happy. “My kids are just thinking, ‘Hey this is fun, we went on an awesome road trip.’”
In Lac La Biche, south of Fort McMurray, evacuation centres have been set up with cots in places like the hockey arena and curling rink.
Shahzaib Sheikh was working at the Syncrude site near Fort McMurray when he heard the evacuation order. He went home, grabbed a few important items and spent nearly 12 hours on the road to Lac La Biche, he said.
“It’s just crazy. I can’t imagine this would happen to our town. Everything is flames all over,” he said. He and his family are now staying at an evacuation centre.
“We have no place to go right now other than back to Fort Mac. That’s it,” he said. But he’s thankful for the shelters. “It’s a really, really good effort what you guys are doing here.”
Others in Lac La Biche and elsewhere in the province have opened their homes to evacuees – giving them a place to stay. Airbnb is waiving listing fees for people offering spaces for Fort McMurray evacuees and lots of ads are popping up.
North of the city, many people are staying at work camps organized by Noralta Lodge and others. Noralta Lodge said they are working with suppliers and partners to ensure that all those housing evacuees have supplies. A thousand evacuees and emergency responders were accommodated by Noralta Lodge as of Wednesday morning, and the company said that they have room for another 1,000 at their Village site and more at the Firebag site.
Another company, Civeo, said that they had accommodated approximately 3,000 people from Fort McMurray, including children and pets, and provided rooms, bottled water and food.
They’ll need the bottled water – a boil water advisory has been issued for the entire region, including the camps.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is urging everyone north of the city to stay where they are.
These evacuees are safe, says the municipality, and should not attempt to come south.
The 2011 census counted about 61,000 people in Wood Buffalo, a sprawling area centred on Fort McMurray. Around 8,200 of them were children under the age of 10, and just under 1,000 were over 65.
The area’s population varies according to the state of the energy economy, making it much harder to count than other Canadian communities. Municipal officials in Wood Buffalo, anxious not to miss out on grants tied to population, pegged it closer to 125,000 in a 2015 municipal census, including a ‘shadow population’ of about 40,000 who come and go from work camps.
Among working-age adults, Wood Buffalo’s population has about 25 men for every 20 women.
With files from Patrick Cain, Global News