EDMONTON, Alberta — Displaced residents at oil field camps north of Fort McMurray, Alberta got a sobering drive-by view of their burned out city Friday in a convoy that moved evacuees south amid a massive wildfire that officials fear could double in size by the end of Saturday.
As police and military oversaw the procession of hundreds of vehicles, a mass airlift of evacuees also resumed. A day after 8,000 people were flown out, authorities said 5,500 more were expected to be evacuated by the end of Friday and another 4,000 on Saturday.
More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’ oil sands, where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings. The mass evacuation forced as much as a quarter of Canada’s oil output offline according to estimates and is expected to impact a country already hurt by a dramatic fall in the price of oil.
About 1,200 vehicles had passed through Fort McMurray by late Friday afternoon despite a one-hour interruption due to heavy smoke, authorities said.
Jim Dunstan was in the convoy with his wife, Tracy, and two young sons. “It was shocking to see the damaged cars all burned on the side of the road. It made you feel lucky to get out of there,” he said.
In Edmonton, between 4,500 and 5,000 evacuees arrived at the airport on at least 45 flights Friday, airport spokesman Chris Chodan said. In total, more than 300 flights have arrived with evacuees since Tuesday, he said.
A group that arrived late Friday afternoon was greeted by volunteers who handed out bottled water and helped direct people where to go next.
Among them was 32-year-old Chad Robertson, a fuel truck driver who was evacuated from Husky Energy’s Sunrise project, northeast of Fort McMurray. He said that when the fire started, even though the flames were relatively far away, “everyone started panicking.”
Robertson said he had plans to go to a friend’s house in Edmonton before heading home to Nova Scotia.
Scott Burrell, 42, from Kelowna, British Columbia, was waiting with others in an airport terminal that had been repurposed for evacuees who were resting and waiting for flights. He said he was working for a scaffolding company at a plant called Fort Hills when the fire broke out Tuesday.
“We were working overtime and I just saw what looked like a massive cloud in the sky, but I knew it was fire,” he said. “The very next day was my day to go home. Ends up we weren’t going home that day.”
Burrell and others were evacuated by plane Friday, after spending three days with families who arrived at the work camp because they were evacuated from their towns. He said he and other workers rationed their food to help the families who were coming in, and some offered up their living spaces for them.
Burrell planned to catch a flight back to British Columbia.
The Alberta provincial government, which declared a state of emergency, said Friday the size of the blaze had grown to more than 101,000 hectares (249,571 acres). No deaths or injuries were reported.
The government said 1,100 firefighters, 110 helicopters, 295 pieces of heavy equipment and more than 27 air tankers were fighting the fire. But Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention, said the fire covers 249,571 acres and “there is a high potential that the fire could double in size by the end of tomorrow.”
Morrison said no amount of resources would put this fire out. They need rain.
“We have not seen rain in this area for the last two months of significance,” Morrison said. “This fire will continue to burn for a very long time until we see some significant rain.”
Environment Canada forecast a 40 percent chance of showers in the area on Sunday.
Morrison said he expected the fire to expand into a more remote forested area northeast and away from Fort McMurray but said extremely dry conditions and a hot temperature of 81 Fahrenheit was expected Saturday along with strong winds. He said cooler conditions were expected Sunday and Monday.
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 it is safer and they can get better support services. The convoy was stopped for an hour.
The Alberta government is providing cash to 80,000 evacuees from the Fort McMurray fire to help them with their immediate needs. Premier Rachel Notley said her cabinet has approved a payment of $967 per adult and $387 per dependent at a cost to the province of $77 million. She told a briefing in Edmonton that she wants people who were forced from their homes to know that the government “has their back.”
Police were escorting 50 vehicles at a time, south through the city itself on Highway 63 at a distance of about 12 miles south and then releasing the convoy. At that point another convoy of 50 cars begins.
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. The city 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 Wednesday, but by Thursday it was almost nine times that — at 330 square miles. That’s an area roughly the size of Calgary, Alberta’s largest city.
The fire was so large that smoke from the fair is blanketing parts of the neighboring province of Saskatchewan where Environment Canada has issued special air quality statements for several areas.
Morrison, the wildfire prevention manager, said the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, but that 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.
Greg Pardy, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said that as much as 1 million barrels a day of oil may be offline, based on oil company announcements. That’s just over a third of Canada’s total oil sands output, Pardy noted.