Canadian Convoy Begins, Hoping to Flee Wildfire Zone

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (AP) -
People stop to take photos of a wildfire south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, on Thursday, as they evacuate the area. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
People stop to take photos of a wildfire south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, on Thursday, as they evacuate the area. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

A massive convoy was under way Friday to move evacuees stranded at oil field camps north of fire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Alberta, through the community to safe areas south of the Canadian oil-sands capital.

Police and military were overseeing the procession of an estimated 1,500 vehicles.

Meanwhile, a mass airlift of evacuees was expected to resume, a day after 8,000 people were flown out.

In all, more than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray, in the heart of Canada’ oil sands, and officials say no deaths or injuries related to the fire have been reported.

The Alberta provincial 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 the fire, but Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention, said rain is needed.

“Let me be clear: Air tankers are not going to stop this fire,” he said. “It is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain.”

Environment Canada forecast a 40 percent chance of showers in the area on Saturday.

A massive plume of smoke stretches over Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout via Reuters)
A massive plume of smoke stretches over Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout via Reuters)

About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation, where oil-sands work camps that usually house employees were used to house evacuees. But the bulk of the more than 80,000 evacuees fled south to Edmonton and elsewhere, and officials are moving everyone south where they can get better support services.

Some 8,000 evacuees had been flown to Edmonton and Calgary by Thursday night. It appeared the highway was safe enough on Friday to move thousands more south on the highway. It was not safe Thursday.

Officials said a military helicopter would lead the evacuation convoy on Friday morning to make sure the highway is safe. The convoy will pass through Fort McMurray where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings.

“That’s why we had the helicopters … just to make sure the motorists and responders are safe in case there’s a sudden change in fire direction,” said Sgt. John Spaans, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman. “They would be able to notify everyone immediately.”

Police are escorting 50 vehicles at a time, south through the city itself on Highway 63 at a distance of about 12.4 miles south and then releasing the convoy. At that point another convoy of 50 cars will begin.

All intersections along the convoy route have been blocked off and evacuees are not being allowed back to check on their homes in Fort McMurray.

Spaans said the goal was to get all vehicles out of the area Friday, if the weather, fire and road conditions cooperate, but municipal officials later said in a release it would take about four days.

Fort McMurray is surrounded by wilderness, and there are essentially only two ways out via road.

Fanned by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 29 square miles Tuesday to 39 square miles on Wednesday, but by Thursday it was 330 square miles. That’s an area roughly the size of Calgary, Alberta’s largest city.

Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. Morrison said the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, but he said it started in a remote forested area and could have been ignited by lightning.

The region has the third-largest reserves of oil in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government has met all of the Alberta government’s requests for assistance, including providing air assets and 7,000 cots for evacuees in emergency shelters, with 13,000 more on the way.