Fort McMurray wildfire: Fire grows to 85,000 hectares, thousands in camps airlifted to safety
UPDATE: Fire now 85,000 hectates in size
UPDATE: Highway 63 still closed
UPDATE: Crews unable to get close enough to determine damage in specific neighbourhoods
UPDATE: state of emergency still in effect, no timeline for resident return
UPDATE: Start shuttling out people trapped in the north
UPDATE: Federal, provincial government matching Red Cross donations
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is a summary of Thursday’s events. To see our Friday coverage, click here.
Premier Rachel Notley and Alberta’s emergency team provided an update on the Fort McMurray wildfire crisis.
Notley said because of the efforts of industry, about 4,000 evacuees who took refuge north of Fort McMurray had been airlifted to Edmonton and Calgary and that the province was hoping to move 4,000 more on Friday.
“Since this morning we’ve been able to have roughly 4,000 people evacuated…Primarily through the work of industry… Bringing in WestJet flights and getting people out.”
Officials are also hoping the highway will be safe enough on Friday to move other evacuees out with a convoy led by law enforcement officers that would pass through Fort McMurray and continue south.
The province also said Fort McMurray’s water treatment plant briefly went offline on Thursday but is now operating again and a team of experts was being brought in from Red Deer to ensure it remained functional. A boil water advisory remained in effect for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo except for area camps that get water from EPCOR, or any provider other than the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Also, the boil water advisory excludes Fort McKay.
The government issued a news release to say 18 new wildfires were sparked on Thursday and that 49 wildfires were burning across the province as of 6 p.m. Seven of those were considered out of control.
The province said the provincial state of emergency remained in effect for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo fire crews and that public safety in the Fort McMurray area remained the key priority.
Alberta Wildfire manager Chad Morrison said the Fort McMurray wildfire was still estimated to be about 85,000 hectares in size and that it was still moving in a southeast direction.
“The fire’s not moved as far as it did yesterday,” he said. However, he added it’s fast approaching Anzac. “It’s right at its doorstep.”
The wildfire raging in and around the northeastern Alberta community of Fort McMurray grew from 10,000 to 85,000 hectares between Wednesday and Thursday, thanks to winds upwards of 70 km/h.
The community remains blocked off with road closures on Highways 63 and Highway 881, and on Thursday officials said there is still no specific timeline on when people will be able to return home.
“It will not be a matter of days,” Notley said, adding officials will plan a way for residents to go back, pick up belongings, and see their homes when it is safe.
Watch below: Global News has obtained video from inside Fort McMurray Thursday. Twenty-two water bombers and roughly 200 firefighters are in the community trying to keep more buildings from burning. Gord Steinke is in Conklin, south of the community, with more tonight.
RCMP officers went into Fort McMurray Thursday to ensure everyone was out. Sgt. Jack Poitras said officers brought two people out of the community Wednesday night.
“We still have some people that have been hanging around and we’re trying to ensure everyone’s safety so we are keeping the traffic out,” he said.
“It’s very dangerous right now because it keeps going back and forth and as it’s spreading out and coming down further it engulfs you in an area that you can’t get out of, so it’s not a good place to be at this time.”
Alberta declared a state of emergency Wednesday as crews tried to hold back the wildfires which have so far destroyed nearly 1,600 homes and buildings in Fort McMurray. The state of emergency remained in effect on Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, the Alberta government announced a province-wide fire ban was being put into effect.
Fire Damage Update:
Here is the latest fire damage update from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, as of 9:20 p.m. Thursday.
- North Abasand was on fire. The radio/cell tower was under threat.
- Significant damage sustained to Prospect area. Fire crews prevented it from crossing Confederation Way.
- Serious damage to the Old Airport Road structures.
- New airport facility not damaged.
- Fire Hall 5 has no significant damage.
- Anzac/Gregoire Lake Estates were an “active fire zone.”
- Saprae Creek sustained significant damage to 30 per cent of area.
- In downtown, the area north of Hangingstone River remained undamaged except for one structure.
- Stone Creek area remained an active fire zone.
- Birchwood trails remained a priority from a strategic firefighting standpoint; crews working hard to protect.
During an update Thursday, Notley said firefighters have been unable to get close enough to most neighbourhoods to get an update on the number of structures lost.
However, she said key infrastructure areas remain protected and and crews had an optimistic outlook for Timberlea and Thickwood. Scott Long with Alberta Emergency Management Agency said water and fire retardant was dropped on homes in that area on Wednesday.
The fire is now 85,000 hectares (850 square kilometres). There are over 200 structural firefighters and 25 engines working in the community, in addition to wildfire crews working in the forests around the fire. There are also 10 helicopters and 16 tankers flying over the wildfire. Support is coming in from outside the province as well, including from Ontario and Quebec.
Long said a search and rescue operation was underway in the area, after they got a social media report of someone on an ATV lost in the woods. With the help of the Department of National Defence (DND), the person was found and evacuated safely.
Shuttling supplies north, bringing people south
The wildfire forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 Fort McMurray residents on Tuesday. 25,000 of those people were forced to head north on Highway 63, where many were taken in by oilsands camps. The highway eventually turns into a gravel road and does not connect with any others out of the region, so evacuees have been trapped.
The province met with representatives from the major oil and gas operations in the area, including Enbridge, CNRL, Suncor and others, to come up with a plan to work together. Notley praised the oil and gas companies for opening their doors to evacuees.
For instance, Shell’s work camp, the Albian Village, is open to any evacuated Fort McMurray residents who need somewhere to stay. The camp has about 2,000 beds as well as food. Twenty-five flights left from the Albian airstrip Thursday and flights continue.
Notley said emergency crews will be focusing on shipping new supplies up there and bringing evacuees south. Chad Morrison, a senior manager with Wildfire Prevention, said the plan is to work with industry and DND resources to move 8,000 people south.
At same time they’ll do an overflight of Highway 63 through Fort McMurray, and coordinate ground movement as soon as its safe to do so. Morrison said they planned to move an Alberta Transportation mobile gas station north, to make sure evacuees can fuel up before driving south to larger communities like Edmonton and Calgary, where there are better supports in place to help them.
“We need more information about who has been evacuated, where they are, and what supports they require,” Notley stressed on Thursday. She asked evacuees to register at emergency.alberta.ca or call the Red Cross.
Red Cross Donations
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday the government of Canada will match all donations to the Red Cross to assist people displaced by the wildfires in Fort McMurray.
Trudeau also said military helicopters and planes are headed to the disaster area while Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Health Canada is working to prepare for humanitarian needs like clean water for people left stranded or displaced.
The Public Health Agency of Canada told Global News it is providing reception centres with more than 5000 beds and blankets from its National Emergency Strategic Stockpile.
The Alberta government pledged to match all donations made to the Red Cross in aid of the victims. Red Cross is accepting donations via phone, online or through text message. Details can be found at www.redcross.ca.
Notley said another update would come Thursday afternoon.
More fire facts
The Government of Alberta has put together a comprehensive list of the latest, more relevant information about the wildfire and its effect on evacuees. Below are some key points.
- Fire conditions remain extreme across Alberta.
- Cooler temperatures of 16°C are predicted, but lower humidity and winds at 25km/h, gusting to 40 km/h, make weather a significant factor.
- Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for:
- Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation and Mackenzie County near High Level. Residents of evacuated areas should not attempt to return home. There is no timeline for when residents will be able to return.
Emergency gas and diesel stations are temporarily available along Highway 63, in the following locations:
- Approximately 60 kilometres south of Fort McMurray
- Approximately 100 kilometres south of Fort McMurray at Mariana Lakes
- Approximately 165 km south of Fort McMurray
The province said quantities are limited and will be restricted to drivers who need fuel to get them to the nearest gas station.
Highway 63 is open to southbound traffic. Northbound traffic is restricted at the junction of Highway 881 to emergency vehicles and other essential travel. The province said there are traffic controls in place on Highway 63 and 881, and priority is given to emergency responders.
Premier Notley said AHS is sending mental health support workers to affected areas. Workers are already in place at Northlands in Edmonton, and on the way to Lac La Biche, the Firebag site, Fort McKay and St. Paul.
All provincial offices in Fort McMurray are closed due to the evacuation. The province has a lengthy list of resources and phone numbers on this site.
Those who receive services through the province, such as AISH recipients and Alberta Works clients, as well as people looking for information on child intervention, child care and Family Support for Children with Disabilities or persons with developmental disabilities are asked to visit that site for specifics.
The Fort McMurray Courthouse is closed. Information on rescheduled court dates and other legal matters can also be found on the site above.
Wednesday night evacuations
Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees were forced down to the Lac La Biche reception centre throughout the night and into Thursday morning, after about 900 people were forced 245 kilometres south from the Anzac reception centre late Wednesday night.
READ MORE: Live updates of Fort McMurray wildfire
Shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued a mandatory evacuation order in Anzac (located about 50 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray), Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation because shifting weather patterns threatened the area.
Watch below: Flames lit up the night sky over Anzac, forcing Fort McMurray evacuees to pick up their belongings and move further south, as shifting weather patterns threatened the town’s emergency accommodations. Fletcher Kent and Shallima Maharaj report.
Mounties began going door-to-door in those areas to get everyone rounded up for the trip south to Lac La Biche and Edmonton. The local rec centre, which earlier in the day had been a bustling hub of people, was empty by 10:30 p.m. Approximately 2,500 evacuees registered at the centre, although it’s not clear how many were actually staying there.
Watch below: Edmonton Fire Rescue Service Deputy Chief Rob Squire said Wednesday night that more than 900 Fort McMurray evacuees were being sheltered at the city’s EXPO Centre, and assured the facility could accommodate as many people as necessary.
Lac La Biche reception centre grows
As of early Thursday morning, about 1,500 people had been registered at the Bold Centre in Lac La Biche.
Seventy-five people from Anzac had shown up and more were arriving, Global News reporter Sarah Offin observed. Two-hundred cots in one reception centre room were all full, and an extra 250 beds were brought in by the Red Cross overnight.
Hundreds of local volunteers have stepped up to help, including a large number of students whose school has been cancelled while the emergency continues.
The Lac La Biche centre has also been inundated with donations, many driven up by people from Edmonton. The centre is not accepting clothing and bedding donations at this time, but is in need of dog beds and large kennels.
Emergency Operations Centre on the move
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was able move its emergency operations centre back to Fort McMurray on Thursday, after being forced out by fire on Wednesday.
Earlier in the afternoon it was moved from Fort McMurray to Long Lake, near Anzac. Later that night, the ROEC was relocated several hours south to Lac La Biche, where weary staff rested Thursday morning.
Cooler temperatures on Thursday
Offin noted that the badly-needed rain was falling Thursday morning. However Global News crews driving north on Highway 881 a few hours later said it didn’t look like any rain fell near Fort McMurray.
Watch Below: As temperature records are set across the province, there is a slight chance of rain Thursday in the Fort McMurray area – but that’s about the only bit of good news weather-wise for the fire-battered region.
Listen below: 630 CHED is providing ongoing live coverage of the state of emergency in Fort McMurray.
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