Fort McMurray (Canada): Canadian officials began evacuating 8,000 people from work camps north of devastated Fort McMurray by air and hoped to move thousands more via a highway convoy today if it is safe from a massive wildfire raging in Alberta that has grown to 85,000 hectares (210,035 acres).
More than 80,000 people have emptied Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’s oil sands, authorities said.
The Alberta government, which declared a state of emergency, said more than 1,100 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 fire continued to grow but is moving away from Fort McMurray and the rate of its growth has slowed.
About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation, where oil sands work camps were converted to house people. But the bulk of the more than 80,000 evacuees fled south to Edmonton and elsewhere, and officials are moving everyone south where they say they will have better support for the displaced.
Officials had flown 4,000 evacuees to Edmonton and Calgary by last evening and expected to fly 4,000 more by the end of the day. They hoped the highway would become safe enough today to move the remaining people out via the south. It wasn’t safe yesterday.
A helicopter will lead the evacuation convoy this morning to make sure the highway is safe. It will pass through Fort McMurray where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the first convoy will be 400 vehicles and officials would see how that goes. There have been no injuries or death in the province from the fires. Notley said financial support will be provided to Albertans and that cash cards may be made available for evacuated residents.
The Alberta government also declared a province-wide fire ban in an effort to reduce the risk of more blazes in a province that is very hot and dry.
“It is a very rare step,” Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said. Phillips called it an offense to ignore the ban and said it can lead to fines.
Notley said rain is needed. She said she didn’t know how much better the evacuation could have been when asked if ample warning was given to residents, noting that in 48 hours more than 80,000 people were evacuated from a town that essentially has two roads out of it.
Fort McMurray is surrounded by wilderness and is Canada’s main oil sands town. Despite the size of the town and its importance to the Canadian economy, there are essentially only two ways out via car. The region has the third largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
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