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'Day by day': Alberta fire evacuees out until next week, weather to help B.C. crews

A pumper truck sprays fire retardant on trees around the evacuated neighbourhood of Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

FORT MCMURRAY, ALBERTA — Thousands of residents forced to flee a fierce, wind-whipped wildfire threatening the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray were told Wednesday they’ll likely be out for days and may be allowed back as early as Tuesday.

Jody Butz, the fire chief in charge of the Fort McMurray region, said while Tuesday is the estimated return date, there are a lot of variables.

"This does not guarantee that you'll return on that day, but we want to advise you to be evacuated until then," Butz told a news conference.

"There are a number of criteria with the wildfire in order to lift that evacuation order.

“Typically, (lifting the order) centres on the containment of the fire, but every fire situation is unique." 

About 6,600 residents in four southern neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray were ordered out a day earlier when a wildfire threatening from the southwest splayed in multiple directions, fed by high winds, sending columns of smoke skyward.

The rest of Fort McMurray and other surrounding subdivisions remain under evacuation alert. Residents have to be ready to move quickly.

Roads were initially busy as even those who were not ordered out decided to leave.

Butz said those who have fled voluntarily are welcome back.

"The highway is open in both directions and traffic is flowing freely. Businesses and day-to-day operations continue for many parts of the region,” Butz said.

In Beacon Hill, one of the evacuated neighbourhoods, police kept watch under a sky of light haze as a handful of residents returned home briefly to grab vital but forgotten supplies, such as prescription medicines. Nearby, fire crews squirted orange fire-retardant gel on bushes.

David Warwick, who has lived in the neighbourhood for six years, said evacuating feels similar to eight years ago.

"Hopefully it's not going to get to the extent it was last time, but I guess we'll take it day by day and see how the wind plays," he said from his truck.

"They're definitely a little better prepared with the notices that came out. Lots of people left yesterday. It was a little bit chaotic, but people managed to get out safely."

Search and rescue volunteers Vanessa Marr and Lloyd Sawatzky helped direct traffic and conduct checks in the vacated areas.

Marr said she got a call early Wednesday to help. 

"We leave our families behind and we just go. I have a 12-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl. They were kind of sad, saying, 'Please Mom, stay safe," she said.

Sawatzky said he believes the province is better prepared now with a new Regional Emergency Operations Centre, to help co-ordinate volunteers.

"This is the first year they did it. A month ago, they were panicking to get all their paperwork done," he said.

The fire moved to within five kilometres of the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881 — the main southern route out of the municipality — and about six kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill on the city’s outskirts. 

It had grown to 210 square kilometres in size.

Josee St-Onge, an Alberta Wildfire information officer, said favourable winds should push the fire from the city, but weather can change at any point.

This is the second time Fort McMurray, a city of 68,000, has been forced to flee the flames. In 2016, a wildfire nicknamed The Beast destroyed well over 2,000 homes and forced 80,000 people out of the city and surrounding area.

In Edmonton, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said she sympathizes with those who have left, but public safety is paramount.

“I know that this will bring back difficult memories from the devastating fires of 2016,” Smith said.

“Our government will have Alberta’s back whenever a disaster strikes.”

Smith’s government has promised those displaced by fire evacuations will be eligible to receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per child after a week.

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said crews continue to fight flames on the ground and in the air while also erecting fire guards. Bans are in place for fires and off-road vehicles.

Butz said this fire is different from the one in 2016 because it's moving through the path destroyed by the previous fire. 

The 2016 fire roared through spruce trees and destroyed much of the oilsands community. The recovery took years.

Butz said the new fire is burning along the surface of the old and has less fuel to consume. Burning muskeg is generating the smoke.

Other fires across Western Canada have forced residents out of their homes. 

In northeastern British Columbia, a widening area around Fort Nelson, a town of 4,700, remained under evacuation. 

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, urged residents not to return to their homes after RCMP had to relocate a safety checkpoint outside the community. He said emergency crews need to focus on fighting fires rather than looking out for people heading into harm's way.

The BC Wildfire Service said light rain and cooler temperatures were in the forecast and could stop the Parker Lake fire from spreading closer to the town.

Most Fort Nelson evacuees are now waiting out the firefight 380 kilometres to the south, in Fort St. John. They include Diane Ens, who fled with her three daughters, her mother-in-law, three cats, and "huge" dog.

"You're kind of paralyzed and scrolling (your phone) 24/7 trying to get a sense of something," she said as she sat on a bench outside her hotel, Chevy the dog howling across the parking lot.

She said she felt like she was "in limbo," as she waited on word of what was happening back home.

In addition to the 84-square-kilometre Parker Lake fire a few kilometres to the west of Fort Nelson, fire crews are also fighting a massive fire about 25 kilometres to the north of the town. That blaze, known as the Patry Creek fire, is a holdover blaze from the 2023 fire season and now measures 718 square kilometres, making it the biggest fire burning in Canada.

But the BC Wildfire Service says it does not pose an immediate threat to Fort Nelson.

In Manitoba, about 500 people remained out of the remote northwestern community of Cranberry Portage.

Officials said a fire there is about 80 per cent contained and, if things go well, residents could be back in their homes this weekend.

"We're going to get some rain coming in, and it looks like it's going to be appreciable amounts for the next three or four days. So really favourable conditions for our fire crews," said Earl Simmons, the province's wildfire service director.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2024.

— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary, Steve Lambert in Winnipeg, Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon, Jeremy Simes in Regina, Darryl Greer in Fort St. John, and Brenna Owen in Vancouver.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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