Roughly 1,600 buildings have been destroyed in Fort McMurray, Alberta and emergency officials say that a large portion of the city could be lost due to an out of control wildfire on an increasingly destructive path.
The province has now issued a state of emergency, allowing the province to request additional resources from outside the province.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley spoke at a news conference Wednesday where she said there had been no reports of any injuries or deaths.
The premier was expected to visit Fort McMurray to meet with officials, survey the scene, and thank first responders.
More than 80,000 people are believed to have been evacuated from the oilsands city following a mandatory evacuation notice.
Notley said a key focus of the evacuation effort was on the city’s hospital.
“They successfully evacuated the hospital last night, transferring the patients by land to an air field where they contracted with WestJet and were able to move them to healthcare facilities distributed throughout the province,” she said. “As things stand right now, we know that there’s been fairly significant destruction of residences in Fort McMurray. We’re looking at roughly 1,600 structures at this point.”
London native Chris Vandenbreekel works as a reporter for Mix 103.7 in Fort McMurray and escaped safely yesterday.
He tells AM980 the fire took everyone in the city by surprise.
“The fire broke out on Sunday afternoon, and I was called in to cover it. It was the third wildfire in three days so it wasn’t a huge thing. I was thinking maybe it’s a little fire that I’ll have to cover for a little bit, and then I saw the size of it,” he said. “We woke up yesterday morning and it was blue skies. We thought the worst was over and then the wind shifted to push the fire towards town and then it just didn’t stop there. It expanded and expanded in a very short manner of time, and within a few hours everyone was getting evacuated.”
The only route out of town, Highway 63, has been a sea of Fort McMurray residents trying to escape the encroaching inferno.
Vandenbreekel says they had to go to Grey Wolf Lodge, 50 km north of the city, because the southbound route was closed.
“We had no other choice. The highway did reopen overnight, so a bunch of people made an exodus to get out while they could. We waited too long and the highway is closed again and we don’t know when it’s going to reopen,” he said. “One of the concerns is that if the fire does rage out of control, it could burn down the Athabasca Bridge which is our only way out of the town.”
The wildfire is expected to be even worse than it was on Tuesday, thanks to a third day of high temperatures and low humidity. Wind gusts of 20 to 40 km/h are expected. The current size is between 7,500 and 10,000 hectares. One hundred firefighters are fighting the fire, along with 10 air tankers and 10 helicopters.
Scott Long with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency was asked whether it’s possible that the city could be destroyed.
“We don’t want that to happen obviously, we’re working towards preventing that, but it is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town.”
An update by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo at 2:30 p.m. ET described the damage to the city’s neighbourhoods, with the destruction expected to increase.
The Canadian military has offered help in the form of helicopters and transport planes in response to the wildfire.
Brigadier General Wayne Eyre says the Alberta government is expected to formally ask other provinces and northern US states for help in fighting the fire.
The Red Cross has set up a family reunification number for Fort McMurray evacuees: 1-888-350-6070. Donations can also be given online.
With files from Global News’ Karen Bartko.