The apartment towers of downtown Fort McMurray stood in thick clouds of acrid smoke at dawn as the first convoy of residents trapped north of raging wildfires sped through the shattered city.
Power lines were toppled and neighbourhoods continued to burn as more than 1,200 vehicles were escorted through Fort McMurray on Friday. Due to fire and smoke, as many as 25,000 people were trapped north of the city for three days after mass evacuations were ordered.
Damian MacDachen drove his burgundy GMC Sierra through what was left of his hometown on Friday morning. His truck was among 50 vehicles in the first convoy. The bright lights of RCMP cruisers glinted off the blanket of ash covering Fort McMurray as he drove, while above, a Canadian Forces helicopter searched for danger.
"We went as fast as we could through the city. It looks just terrible in there, it was insane. I was just happy to get out," he said while stopping for food on his way south.
It was a solemn drive for the thousands of residents. More than 1,600 structures have been destroyed in what could be one of the most expensive disasters in Canadian history.
"It was bad, some places got hit hard, but it could have been worse. While it's devastating in some parts of town, other parts are fine," said Daylin Supple, 18.
His childhood home was destroyed in the blaze. Some areas were still on fire as he drove through. Soon after his convoy passed, traffic was halted for an hour because the flames got too close to the evacuation route.
Along with a mass airlift of more than 16,000 people who fled to oil camps, Alberta officials say the ground convoys will finish evacuating the areas north of Fort McMurray over the weekend. The wildfires in and around the city covered more than 1,000 square kilometres on Friday, and officials warned they could double in size by Saturday.
It will be weeks before the massive wildfire is out. The provincial government announced $100-million in emergency cash on Friday for the 90,000 people who have been displaced from the area.
As the fires burned out of control on Friday, shifting winds threatened once again to push the blaze in a new direction, this time to the northeast, towards a forested area and away from communities and industrial facilities.
While firefighters were holding back the flames in Fort McMurray and the nearby hamlet of Anzac on Friday, their actions alone will not be enough to put an end to the massive conflagration. Between 18 and 20 structures were destroyed in Anzac over the past two days. The hamlet was the site of the first evacuation centre for Fort McMurray residents, but was quickly evacuated on Wednesday as the fire turned in its direction.
"We do need some rain, there is no question about it. And even once we get rain, there's still going to be a lot of fire out there and a lot of work," said Chad Morrison, Alberta's senior manager for wildfire prevention.
"We'll be here for weeks and weeks to put that fire out."
Premier Rachel Notley announced emergency cash payments for displaced people: $1,250 per adult, and $500 per dependent. People will begin receiving the financial aid next Wednesday as part of $200-million in disaster assistance approved by Ms. Notley's cabinet.
"The city of Fort McMurray is not safe to return to," she said. "And this will be true for a significant period of time."
The town site remained under police guard, and a return date cannot be decided until the fire is away from the city and damages are assessed, Ms. Notley said.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Friday that the federal government will cover 90 per cent of the expected hundreds of millions of dollars the province has had to spend related to the Fort McMurray fire.
Mr. Goodale described the blaze as "vicious."
"It's a beast," he said, noting that the boreal forest is "tinder dry and the winds are high and unpredictable."
The Red Cross has collected $30-million for Fort McMurray. The provincial and federal governments have both pledged to match donations made to the Red Cross.
Speaking in Toronto, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said now is not the right time for him to travel to the region. He said he will visit in the coming weeks. "We are all aware that a prime minister showing up in Fort McMurray when firefighters are busy trying to contain a massive, raging wildfire is not a particularly helpful thing," he said.
Little is stopping the fire burning in the heart of Alberta's oil sands. Unlike the Slave Lake fire of 2011, this year's blaze is not just stoked by the wind, Mr. Morrison said.
"This fire is a fuel-driven fire, which is the result of very dry conditions for a very long time. We have not seen rain in this area for the last two months, and so that's why this fire will continue to burn for a very long time until we see significant rain," he said.
As of Friday, no rain was forecast for the next week.
Mr. Morrison added that no preventive measures could have been enough to spare Fort McMurray from the evacuation.
"With the nature of this fire and the dangerous conditions we had, no firebreaks would have stopped this fire," he said, noting that the flames managed to jump the Athabasca River, which is a kilometre wide.
"This is an extreme, rare, rare fire event and that's something that's historic to us."
Satellite imagery showed smoke from Alberta had drifted southeast across the continent, all the way to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.