The entire 80,000-strong population of Fort McMurray was ordered to leave everything behind and evacuate quickly as an out-of-control wildfire veered into the city on Tuesday with little warning, creating the largest fire evacuation in Alberta's history.
As fire burned through suburbs toward downtown Tuesday afternoon, a wall of flames sprouted up along the only highway out of Fort McMurray. Within a few hours, the whole city was ordered to evacuate.
The fire had been burning southwest of Fort McMurray since Sunday, but a sudden shift in winds around 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday led to a dramatic turn of events as the fire jumped over rivers and roads, tearing into the northern Alberta city. Residents reported hearing the popping noises of fuel tanks rupturing as they drove on a jammed Highway 63 for safety.
"Our focus is completely and entirely right now on ensuring the safety of people, of getting them out of the city," Premier Rachel Notley said Tuesday afternoon from the government's emergency centre in Edmonton.
WHO TO CONTACT
The Fort McMurray fire: How to help, and receive help
- Those trying to locate loved ones, or who are seeking evacuation information, can call the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo at 780-762-3636 or the Red Cross at 1-888-350-6070
- Click here to donate to the Red Cross
- Those interested in volunteering can apply here
Emergency officials confirmed late Tuesday that whole neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray have been destroyed.
Fire chief Darby Allen said they did not have an estimate of the number of homes destroyed, but said the fire is burning in several areas in the city's south end. There have been no reports of serious injuries.
"My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed," said Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta's Opposition and member of the legislature for the area.
On Tuesday morning, the fire had covered nearly 27 square kilometres outside of the city, but as the flames surged toward Fort McMurray, the 100 firefighters battling the flames had to pull back. To fight back the flames, nine air tankers and more than a dozen helicopters dropped long streams of water and fire retardant as the fires spread.
"The wildfire behaviour is extremely erratic and it isn't safe for firefighters to be on the ground," said Laura Stewart, a wildfire information officer with the Alberta government. "It's a very fluid situation and things are changing by the moment."
Officials called for calm Tuesday as worried residents took to the roads and caused traffic chaos as they fled. Many evacuations orders were given with less than 30 minutes' warning as officials seemed to be caught off-guard by the rapid advance of the flames. The city was cut in half in the afternoon as flames leapt across Highway 63.
Cassie White, 19, said she feared for her life as she tried to flee the area only to be turned around near Gregoire, just south of Fort McMurray.
"On the left was a big gas station; the flames jumped over the highway and blew up the gas station. It was torched," said Ms. White, who was making her way to Edmonton with her boyfriend.
"People were driving on the shoulder. There were flames maybe 15 feet high right off the highway. There was a dump truck on fire – I had to swerve around it – and there was a pickup truck on fire as well. The entire trailer park on my right was in flames. Roofs were coming down."
A huge sheet of debris – possibly part of a roof – hit her car as she drove up a hill, she recalled. She saw police officers in oxygen masks and civilians breathing through wet cloths.
"It almost looks like a zombie apocalypse," she said. "At the time, I didn't know if I was going to make it out … It was very, very scary. I felt like I was in a vacuum bag and all the air was being sucked out."
Chas Coley awoke midday from a night shift to a friend calling to warn him to "start packing."
When the heavy equipment operator escaped with his Rottweiler around 5 p.m. he said a blaze 15 metres high was licking at the tree line of the property next to his home in the Dickinsfield neighbourhood.
"When I left the house I saw flames, so I wouldn't be surprised if my house was barbecued," said Mr. Coley, a Newfoundland native who has owned the home for six years.
Alberta Opposition Leader Brian Jean was driving to his home in Fort McMurray on Tuesday afternoon when he heard that most of his neighbourhood had burnt down. Staff in Mr. Jean's office said that it appeared likely that the Wildrose Party Leader's home was lost in the blaze.
The province had found room for only 6,000 evacuees as of Tuesday evening. Fort McMurray is in a remote area in Alberta's northeast and its health facilities and amenities were evacuated on Tuesday.
Noralta Lodges Ltd, which operates facilities that provide housing for the oil sector, said it was opening the doors to hundreds of rooms, free of charge, to evacuees from Fort McMurray.
"We're just trying to get people safe," spokesperson Blaire McCalla said from the Edmonton area where she was monitoring the situation. "Our operations teams are just flat out trying to get everybody safe, and get them food and get them calm."
Curtis Galas said he had no choice but to offer evacuees free lodging at his small resort on Elinor Lake, about a three hours' drive south of the destruction.
Mr. Galas, who spent 14 years working in Fort McMurray before taking over the resort four years ago, said three families had booked rooms and two remained open as of Tuesday evening.
"We're ex-Fort McMurray residents, so we've opened our hearts and the doors," Mr. Galas told The Globe from Normandeau, Alta. "This is just devastating, but it's amazing how the people have pulled together."
More heavy equipment and more than 100 additional fire fighters are headed toward the city. Emergency crews from nearby oil-sands operations helped fight the flames, with municipalities across the province offering aid.
Much of Alberta has been under extreme or very high wildfire warnings over the past month. After 2015 was marked by the worst drought in a half-century, the province experienced a mild winter that left little snow. A heat wave across the province this week, as well as strong winds, turned the vast forests around Fort McMurray into an inferno.
Late Tuesday afternoon, municipal Councillor Allan Vinni said a significant portion of the Abasand Heights neighbourhood in Fort McMurray has been lost. He was in the area as the fire approached, trying to help an employee and her daughter evacuate.
He says he saw a wall of flames nearly 12 metres high only a block away from his car and they were fortunate to get out on time.
"I'm covered in ash here," he said in a phone interview. "It's still burning like hell up there."
"From what I can see, we're in serious trouble here," he said. "It's going to be very difficult to stop this fire."
Mr. Vinni, a lawyer, was driving his employee's antique Mustang that kept stalling as he tried to evacuate Fort McMurray. Downtown, he said, was a "ghost town."
Alberta's fire crews had been on alert across the province since March 1. The province's wildfire officials say they were ready for this fire as a result of the 2011 blaze that destroyed more than 400 buildings in the community of Slave Lake.
Fire officials had warned on Tuesday morning that they faced a challenging day ahead keeping the fire at bay. At 11 a.m. they said the flames were 1.2 kilometres away from Highway 63 and a night of work building fire defences seemed to be working.
Whipped up by the strong winds and heat, the flames moved toward the city around 1:30 p.m. By 2:15 the first residents were told to leave. Two hours later, more than half the city faced a mandatory evacuation order. The first homes were on fire as those residents fled.
By late afternoon Tuesday, Fort McMurray residents were being evacuated south to the hamlet of Anzac, and north to the Noralta Lodge at a Suncor Energy site 20 kilometres north of town.
All non-essential personnel in Suncor's oil-sands operations were evacuated on Tuesday evening. Spokesman Paul Newmarch said the company's primary concern is the safety of its employees. "We're monitoring the situation closely and working closely with the municipality," he said.
Syncrude Canada Ltd. spokesman Will Gibson was speaking to reporters by phone as he and his family tried to navigate the bumper-to-bumper evacuation traffic. He said there were houses on fire in their Beacon Hill neighbourhood as they drove away late Tuesday afternoon.
At about 5 p.m. MST, Mr. Gibson said the fire was nowhere near Syncrude's operations, and he was unsure whether facilities were still running normally.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the federal government was monitoring the situation.
"I strongly encourage impacted residents of Fort McMurray to follow the directions of their municipal law enforcement and first responders." he said in a statement. "If you are being ordered to evacuate, please do so for your own safety."
With reports from Carrie Tait, Andrea Woo, Mike Hager, Ian Bailey, Robert Fife and The Canadian Press