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Report On Business Rail, flight companies offer deals to Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees

Volunteers direct Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees as they arrive at Edmonton International Airport on Friday. To help some of the 80,000 people who fled the area with just a few hours’ notice, two airlines have added more flights in Alberta, waived baggage fees and allowed pets to travel in airplane cabins.

Rachel La Corte/AP

Amid predictions the fire that drove the evacuation of Fort McMurray could burn for weeks or months, transportation companies that serve northern Alberta are adding flights and waiving some fees to help people get where they need to go.

Via Rail Canada Inc. is offering free tickets on trains departing from Edmonton, eastbound or westbound, for people from the areas affected by the forest fire that began last week. To help some of the 80,000 people who fled the area with just a few hours' notice, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Air Canada have added more flights in Alberta, waived baggage fees and allowed pets to travel in airplane cabins.

The Fort McMurray fire: Here's how you can help, and receive help

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Via Rail spokeswoman Mariam Diaby said the train fares are free for people who can show they are from the affected areas. Fees are waived for transfers and pets too, she said.

"It's important as a Crown Corporation that we reach out to people in need at a time like this," Ms. Diaby said by phone.

The westbound trains depart on May 10, 13 and 15, and the eastbound trips are May 9, 11 and 14. Via Rail said the offer is based on availability, and it is too soon to say how many people had applied for the free fares.

Fort McMurray's airport has been closed to commercial flights since the middle of last week to allow the site to be used by water bombers that are trying to contain the blaze. WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Air Canada have been flying in and out of air strips owned by Shell Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. to take oil sands workers and others to Edmonton and Calgary.

"We bring in whatever [supplies] are requested of us by the oil companies and we depart with people," said Angela Mah, an Air Canada spokeswoman.

Air Canada has flown more than 1,400 people out of the oil sands airports since last week, and has added enough flights to carry 4,550 people from Edmonton to other parts of Canada. Ms. Mah said the new capacity is equivalent to 31 Airbus 320 aircraft.

WestJet's Boeing 737s have made about 50 round trips to the oil sands operations, known as Firebag and Albian, since last week. The flights are paid for by the oil companies, although the planes have also carried area residents and "anybody who needed to get out of the area," WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said. "The top priority was getting people to safety."

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The airline is allowing some passengers to fly without proper identification, knowing most were forced to leave their homes and possessions quickly, she said, and cats and dogs are being allowed to travel in the cabin.

It is expected that Fort McMurray's airport will be closed to commercial flights until Wednesday, although the flight ban could extend beyond that, Ms. Stewart said. "At this point, we're telling guests to check their flights before they go to the airport because this is a situation that is changing rapidly."

Both WestJet and Air Canada say they are offering discounted or lowest possible fares.

Air Canada became a target of anger on social media after people booking seats out of the region were charged several hundred dollars more than usual. Amid accusations of price gouging, the airline said it would refund the differences, and blamed its automated fare management system.

"Regrettably, we were unable to intervene in advance to manually adjust fares and in those instances we're contacting customers who paid a premium to adjust the fare," Air Canada said in a statement.

There are no railways into Fort McMurray itself. A Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. spokesman said the company's freight operations have not been affected by the fires, but the Calgary-based railway is ready to carry water, equipment or other emergency supplies into the region if called upon by the Red Cross.

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