Fears that Canada fire could double in size

2016-05-07 20:00
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PICS: Growing wildfire triggers largest evacuation in Canadian town history

More than 80 000 people have evacuated from Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada's oil sands as a massive wildfire continues to rage in Alberta.

Fort McMurray - A ferocious wildfire wreaking havoc in Canada could double in size on Saturday, authorities warned, as a risky convoy operation to bring thousands to safety in Fort McMurray entered a second day.

As the flames pursued their path of destruction, armies of firefighters sought to protect what was left of homes and other infrastructure in Alberta's parched oil-sands region.

Monster fires were continuing to rage out of control and could potentially double in size by the end of Saturday, said Chad Morrison, senior manager of wildfire prevention at the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Division.

But Morrison noted that winds were expected to push the fire away from populated areas into nearby forests.

The blaze will not be extinguished for "a very long time," until there is significant rain, he said.

There was a 30% chance of rain on Sunday, Canadian government forecasters said, followed by sunny conditions on Monday. More rain was possible later in the week.

In the latest harrowing chapter, convoys of 50 cars at a time made their way through Fort McMurray at about 50-60km/h on Friday, TV footage showed.

2000 homes destroyed

Police took up positions at intersections along the way to keep evacuees from detouring to try to salvage belongings from charred homes – 2 000 of which have been destroyed - and make sure the route remained safe. The fire has encircled the town of 100 000, now evacuated.

Three army helicopters hovered above to sound the alert if the flames got too close to the road, Highway 63, or cut it off completely, as has happened in recent days.

Those being evacuated - for a second time, after first abandoning their homes - had fled this week to an area north of the city where oil companies have lodging camps for workers.

But officials concluded they were no longer safe there because of shifting winds that raised the risk of them becoming trapped, and needed to move south to other evacuee staging grounds and eventually to Edmonton, 400km to the south.

Some 8 000 people were airlifted out of the northern enclave Thursday on helicopters and planes. Officials expect the road convoys for the remaining 17 000 will take around four days.

Escape route

Security camera footage from the inside of one family's home underscored the speed at which the blaze could overcome any stragglers. Thick grey smoke filled the living room within 30 seconds, while flames quickly ate away a wall.

Among the first evacuees to reach Wandering River, a hamlet about 200km south of Fort McMurray, Margarita Carnicero said she had feared for her life on the journey to safety.

"It was a terrible experience," she told AFP, sitting in her dust-covered SUV alongside her teenage daughter Michelle. "I was afraid, but I tried not to show it [so as] not to frighten my daughter."

"With all of the smoke, the trip was hard on the lungs," said Greg Stengel, an oil company employee who also joined the convoy.

Before the convoys got under way, officials had to make sure the escape route was passable, and truck in fuel so people had gas to make it across a city in flames.

Television footage earlier this week showed trees ablaze on the edge of highways crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to leave town.

‘Wildfires still raging’

Bright embers whizzed wildly through the air and floated down onto cars, like hot, orange rain.

"We understand that this is still an active situation. The wildfires are still raging," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a press conference on Friday.

"It's likely going to be several weeks before the situation stabilizes," Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector Garrett Woolsey said.

Evacuees are finding shelter with friends, family and even strangers close to Fort McMurray but also as far away as Edmonton and Calgary, Trudeau said.

The government has declared a state of emergency in Alberta, a province the size of France that is home to one of the world's most prodigious oil industries.

Alberta has been left bone-dry after a period of unusually scant rainfall and unseasonably high temperatures.

Slashed oil output

More than 1 100 firefighters are battling 49 separate blazes across the province - seven of them totally out of control.

The fires have engulfed 100 000 hectares of forest including at least 12 000 in the area surrounding Fort McMurray, now the epicenter of the inferno.

Oil companies crucial to the region such as Suncor, Syncrude and Shell have pulled out non-essential employees, and analysts said the three have slashed output by a total of a million barrels a day.

The cuts amount to around a quarter of the country's entire production, and one-third of Alberta's, and mean a loss of tens of millions of dollars per day in income.

Read more on:    canada  |  fires

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