Wildfire forces out thousands of residents in parts of Fort McMurray

By The Canadian Press

Thousands of residents in four neighbourhoods in the southern end of Fort McMurray were ordered out Tuesday as a wildfire threatened the Alberta city, bringing back memories of a devastating fire eight years earlier. 

The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo directed residents in Beacon Hill, Abasand, Prairie Creek and Grayling Terrace needed to leave by late afternoon.

Regional fire chief Jody Butz said residents in the four neighbourhoods were being ordered out to clear room for crews to fight the fire, which had moved to within 7.5 kilometres of the Fort McMurray landfill.

“We have the resources to defend these areas but we need people out of harm’s way,” he said during a news conference. 

Butz said later in an update to the Wood Buffalo council that about 6,600 residents were covered under the evacuation order. About 68,000 live in the city.

An emergency evacuation warning remained in place for the rest of Fort McMurray and the communities of Saprae Creek, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation No. 468, Anzac and Rickards Landing Industrial Park.

Those residents have been told to prepare to leave on short notice.

“I’m not anticipating us to have another evacuation. But if the time does come, I ask that you listen to the areas that are being evacuated because there is thought and strategy behind that,” Butz said at the council meeting.

The rural municipality declared a state of local emergency Tuesday afternoon, a move that allows it to access additional resources and powers under the Emergency Management Act.

It said later that accommodations were full in the community of Lac la Biche, a nearly 300-kilometre drive to the south. Evacuees were told to report to a reception centre in the city of Cold Lake, another 150 kilometres southeast.

In Edmonton, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith told the legislature those displaced by wildfire evacuations would be eligible to receive $1,250 per adult and $600 per child after seven days.

In Beacon Hill, Suzy Gerendi, who runs the dessert shop Sugarmonkey Bar, said she was already packed up when the evacuation order came down. 

Gerendi lived in Beacon Hill when fire overtook the area in 2016.

She immediately began the drive towards Edmonton with her three dogs. 

“It’s very, very dark and orange,” Gerendi said while driving.

“It brings up some memories, and it’s not a good feeling.”

Residents were also dealing with heavy smoke and ash.

“It’s dark. The smoke is everywhere,” said resident Else Hoko.

Hoko picked up her two sons from school in Abasand after receiving the evacuation order. 

She said the boys helped the family of five, including a baby, pack into a vehicle and drive out. She also fled in 2016.

“I’m so stressed,” she said, adding she’s praying and asking for rain.

“We trust in God.”

The 2016 fire destroyed 2,400 homes and forced more than 80,000 in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area to flee. The city’s Beacon Hill and Abasand neighbourhoods experienced severe losses.

The current fire was nearly 210 square kilometres in size as of 7 p.m., nearly double the 110 square kilometres reported just three hours earlier.

It moved to within six kilometres of highways 63 and 881, the main roads south out of Fort McMurray. 

Josee St. Onge, an Alberta Wildfire information officer, said wind was pushing the fire towards the community.

She said crews were pulled from the fire line for safety reasons, while air tankers and helicopters continued to drop water and retardant on the “active edges.”

“Unfortunately, these are not favourable winds for us, and the fire will continue to advance towards the town until we see a wind shift,” she said.

“We understand that this is a very stressful time for the community. I want to ensure we are doing everything we can.”

Crews continued to build a fire guard to protect the city.

Butz said the municipality has an “abundance of resources” and is well positioned to respond to the fire. 

Mayor Sandy Bowman thanked residents for staying clam. 

“This is a completely different fire but still brings back those same traumatic feelings (from 2016),” Bowman said. 

“Be patient and caring with your neighbours, and we’ll all work together to get through this.”

— with files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon and Jeremy Simes in Regina.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today