FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – A massive wildfire raging in the Canadian province of Alberta has grown to 85,000 hectares (210,035 acres) in size and officials would like to move south about 25,000 evacuees who had previously fled north. More than 80,000 people have emptied Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’s oil sands.
The Alberta government said Thursday that more than 1,110 firefighters, 145 helicopters, 138 pieces of heavy equipment and 22 air tankers were fighting a total of 49 wildfires, with seven considered out of control. Chad Morrison with AB Wildfire, manager of wildfire prevention, said the wildfire grew rapidly, fueled by gusting winds and they expect the fire to grow Thursday but away from the community.
The communities of Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation, an aboriginal reservation, were evacuated overnight after the wildfires moved south. The fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings in Fort McMurray. There have been no injuries or death from the fires. The province of Alberta declared a state of emergency.
“Homes have been destroyed. Neighborhoods have gone up in flames. The footage we’ve seen of cars racing down highways while fire races on all sides is nothing short of terrifying,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Parliament on Thursday, calling it “the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history.”
Trudeau called on all Canadians “to support our friends and neighbors at this difficult time,” saying the federal government will match individual charitable donations to the Red Cross. Opposition Conservative Rona Ambrose’s voice cracked as she noted that Fort McMurray is destination for thousands of Canadian workers and that it was a tough time for Albertans.
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. Fort McMurray is surrounded by wilderness in the heart of Canada’s oil sands — the third largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
The emergency operations center relocated southward for the third time in a day back in Fort McMurray after moving to Lac La Biche, Alberta — about 175 miles (280 kilometers) south of Fort McMurray. Morrison said officials are investigating the cause of the fire but said it started in a remote forested area and that it could have been lightning.
About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday’s evacuation, where oil sands work camps were being pressed into service to house people. But the bulk of the evacuees fled south to Edmonton and elsewhere, and officials said they eventually would like to move everyone south. Officials are now trying to fly 8,000 evacuees out of the area starting Thursday afternoon and are hoping the highway becomes safe enough to move people that way.
The fire has dealt a blow to the region’s crude production, with companies curtailing production or stopping it altogether. Nexen shut down its Long Lake facility, just south of Anzac, to ensure the safety of staff in the event that the fire reaches the site.
Shell said it has shut down production at its Shell Albian Sands mining operations — about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Fort McMurray — so it can focus on getting families out of the region. Suncor, the largest oil sands operator, said it is reducing production at its regional facility about 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of the city. Syncrude also reduced the number of people working at its Mildred Lake mine.