Two weeks after a wildfire forced more than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta to flee, thousands more are being evacuated north of the city.
An Alberta Emergency Alert was issued just before 10 p.m. Monday night, extending a mandatory evacuation order from Fort McMurray to just south of Fort MacKay.
The development came after some work camps were put under a mandatory evacuation order because of an out of control wildfire earlier in the day. Thousands of nearby oil workers were also being impacted by a precautionary evacuation
All work camps and production refineries north of Fort McMurray and just south of Fort MacKay, including Aostra Road, were told to evacuate immediately and head south on Highway 63 if possible.
The evacuation order did not include Fort MacKay, Athabasca Camp and the Beaver River Camp, but all other camps and facilities south of the area are told they must evacuate immediately.
The mandatory wildfire evacuation for Fort McMurray was expanded Monday afternoon to include lodging camps north of the city.
At 4:30 p.m. all camps north of Fort McMurray up to and including to the Ruth Lake Camp were told to evacuate. Ruth Lake is about 30 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
All camps and production facilities that use Aostra Road were also told to evacuate.
A provincial emergency alert told evacuees they should head south on Highway 63.
Premier Rachel Notley addressed the media shortly after 6 p.m. Monday about the latest developments.
“There has been a somewhat significant change in the fire and its behaviour in and around Fort McMurray,” she said. “In effect, as we indicated this might happen this morning, the fire has begun burning north and at this time, it is flanking to the west of the community of Timberlea.
“What we’re told is there’s a pretty substantial burned-out area between where the fire is now and the community, and there’s roughly five kilometres between where the fire is and the community and it’s flanking north. Nonetheless, roughly 150 to 200 firefighters are in that community that are keeping an eye out for embers spread should that move into that community.”
Notley said the mandatory evacuation of oil worker camps along Aostra Road amounted to between 500 and 600 people and that there was a precautionary evacuation in place at Syncrude and Suncor but that north of those facilities there was no immediate threat.
“Both Syncrude and Suncor have emergency plans in place which they are operationalizing and (have) firefighters in place as well,” Notley said. “It is a dynamic time right now – we’re in that fairly aggressive burning period – it should fade out and slow down in between about eight or nine o’clock tonight and then we’ll have a better sense of where things stand.”
“The fire is about 15 to 20 kilometres still to the south of the major oilsands facilities at this time,” Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison said at the 6 p.m. press conference. He added that it was still not clear whether it would reach the Suncor and Syncrude facilities.
While non-essential staff were being evacuated from Syncrude and Suncor, Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said a plan is in place to evacuate more staff if necessary.
“The essential personnel that they’re leaving behind… we don’t have precise numbers but clearly that’s the industrial firefighters and folks that are required to keep the camps operating and to complete the shut-ins,” Long said. “If it (fire) gets closer, then there would be triggers that would determine a mandatory evacuation and, at that point in time, all remaining personnel would complete the shut-ins and they would move to camps to the north as well.”
The premier said 300 people, mostly utility workers, were asked to assemble at Fort McMurray’s MacDonald Island Park so people knew where they were. She said another 300 people were “sheltering in place” at the hospital but added the temporary medical field operation remained open.
Late Monday afternoon, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said about 4,000 workers in at least 12 plants were impacted by the “controlled precautionary evacuation.” At 9:30 p.m., official’s tweeted 8,000 people were now impacted.
Earlier Monday, officials warned the air quality in the Fort McMurray area was at dangerous levels.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the air quality health index is normally one to 10, with 10 being the worst, but the reading this morning was at 38.
A spokesperson for Noralta said it had been given three to five hours to evacuate its Village location (on Aostra Road). The facility has roughly 2,000 guests and 300 staff.
“We are proceeding in an orderly evacuation in collaboration with our clients and industry partners,” Blare McCalla said.
Essential employees have been sent to Grey Wolf Lodge, which Noralta said would continue to operate as long as authorities deemed it safe.
Noralta Lodge provides accommodation for workers in the oil industry. The Village site is located 26 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray.
The Grey Wolf Lodge is north of the Ruth Lake Camp.
A spokesperson for Suncor said its facilities and camps are not considered at risk from the fire but, working with the province, 120 workers at the Mackay River operation were moved to camps further north as a precaution.
On Monday morning, the Edmonton International Airport was busy with hundreds of workers flying back to camps north of Fort McMurray.
With files from Emily Mertz and Phil Heidenreich, Global News
(Photo courtesy @RottyRabid)