Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The northern Alberta wildfire approaching Fort McMurray had burned more than 10,000 hectares by Tuesday afternoon.KOSAR/Getty Images

Thousands of people were ordered to leave their homes in Fort McMurray on Tuesday afternoon as a wildfire in northern Alberta pressed toward the community, reigniting memories of the 2016 blaze that forced the entire city to flee and flattened some neighbourhoods.

Jody Butz, director of emergency management for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the evacuation order covers roughly 6,000 people living in four neighbourhoods, some of the same communities that suffered extensive devastation in 2016. The current fire is roughly eight kilometres away from the landfill, just south of town.

But he stressed that this fire, known as MWF-017, is much different from the one that tore through parts of town eight years ago. This fire is burning through the wreckage of its infamous predecessor, which was known as The Beast. As a result, it does not have as much access to fuel, and it is crawling along the ground rather than torching the forest’s crown. The fire had burned more than 10,000 hectares by Tuesday afternoon.

Still, officials urged residents in the town’s southwest to leave their neighbourhoods so firefighters could protect their communities.

The wildfire is one of several burning across Western Canada early in the wildfire season. Uncontained wildfires are also spreading in B.C. and Manitoba, some of which have led to power outages, highway closings and air-quality alerts that reached several U.S. states. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported a total of 132 active fires burning on Tuesday, mostly in Alberta and B.C.

Western Canada has been experiencing severe drought conditions for months and government officials and scientists have been warning that extremely dry conditions and warming temperatures will make for a combustible wildfire season. Agriculture Canada’s drought map shows extreme and exceptional drought conditions – the two most severe levels – in pockets of B.C.’s Interior and northeast and in Southern Alberta.

On Tuesday, officials in Alberta acknowledged that memories of the 2016 fire were heightening emotions but pleaded with residents to be patient with their neighbours. Mr. Butz asked residents who want to leave the city, but live outside of the four areas under evacuation orders, to stay put until those in the most danger have had time to leave.

“Please, please allow these communities to evacuate first,” he said. “It is important that we approach this in a safe and orderly and respectful manner.”

Roughly 90,000 people evacuated Fort McMurray and its surrounding communities in 2016 and the race to safety clogged highway 63 south through the night as residents escaped. Residents were displaced for weeks, forced to stay out while officials cleaned up the toxic aftermath and re-established services.

Fort McMurray resident Ashley Russell said that, while she has not been ordered to evacuate, she remains on high alert given her experience last time.

“I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety and PTSD,” she said. “I was here in 2016 and my place burned down then, so I’m just reliving that a little bit.”

Ms. Russell said she is feeling more prepared than she was eight years ago, citing better organization and planning from the city. She and her family have plans to stick together and move south if an evacuation is necessary.

“I’m packed and I’m ready to go,” she said. “In 2016, I literally woke up and was out the door – didn’t have time to pack anything – so I feel better that way.”

Alberta Health Services temporarily closed its Fort McMurray Recovery Centre, relocating staff and patients, because the facility is in the evacuation zone. As a precaution, it also moved 20 people from the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre and the Willow Square Continuing Care Centre to health care facilities elsewhere in the province, according to AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson. Both facilities remain open and emergency services are available, he said.

In B.C., the Parker Lake fire near Fort Nelson had grown to 84 square kilometres by Tuesday, up from 53 square kilometres Monday morning. About 4,700 people have been placed on evacuation order since its discovery on Friday, including those in Fort Nelson and neighbouring Fort Nelson First Nation.

A day earlier, officials had forecast westerly winds that could further ignite the dry and volatile fuels in the region; the BC Wildfire service said Tuesday that conditions were “still very receptive to wildfire and continued growth is expected.”

About 70 BC Wildfire Service personnel are responding to the Parker Lake fire, along with 19 aircraft and four structure-protection specialists. Some members that were relocated Monday to a second incident command post south of Fort Nelson, both for safety reasons and to position resources, returned to the community on Tuesday, the service said.

The evacuation sent thousands of Fort Nelson residents scattering over the weekend to emergency support services reception centres in northern B.C., including Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Chetwynd and Prince George.

Resident Jordan Pust saw a plume of smoke out the window of his Fort Nelson home on Friday before the evacuation order was delivered. He drove to Fort St. John that night with his girlfriend and five-year-old son. “I’ve never seen so much traffic in the 11 years that I’ve been living in Fort Nelson.”

Mr. Pust, who is now staying a hotel with his family and several pets, said he is grateful for the support received from nearby regions but that he doesn’t feel that these efforts are sustainable. “What happens when those portions of the province start to have forest fires themselves? Then we’re left standing, watching our community fall apart.”

On Monday afternoon, the Doig River First Nation, about 40 kilometres northeast of Fort St. John, issued an evacuation order for the reserve. The Peace River Regional District followed that evening with its own evacuation order for the area north of the First Nation.

Tuesday, the BC Wildfire Service reported that the fire was about six square kilometres and expected to spread. The First Nation said an increase in humidity and lower temperatures had created promising conditions but that it was remaining vigilant.

In Manitoba, officials on Tuesday reported a “significant number of active fires” around Flin Flon and The Pas, caused by drought conditions and high winds. This included a fire in Flin Flon that had grown to 316 square kilometres, threatening the cottage subdivisions of Sourdough Bay, Whitefish Lake, Twin Lakes, Schist Lake North and Cranberry Portage. About 550 residents had been ordered to leave Cranberry Portage for The Pas.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe