Wildfire forces RMWB to order about 6,600 people to leave Fort McMurray

The RMWB is confident no other evacuation orders will be issued today for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. For now, the fire is not expected to cross the Athabasca River.

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Eight years later, about 6,600 people have once again been told to leave their homes as a wildfire again approaches Fort McMurray.

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The wildfire that was spotted on Thursday about 25 kilometres southwest of the city grew into an 11,000-hectare storm by 4 p.m. Tuesday. The most recent data put the wildfire 7.5 kilometres from Fort McMurray’s landfill and 6.5 kilometres from the intersection of Highways 63 and 881.

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People in the neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek have all been told to leave. Abasand and Beacon Hill lost most of the 2,579 homes destroyed in the 2016 Horse River wildfire.

Evacuees with nowhere to go were told to go to the Parkland Motels in Lac La Biche. Those spaces quickly filled up and a new evacuation centre opened at the Cold Lake Agriplex.

People across Fort McMurray have been told to be ready for an evacuation since Friday afternoon after the wildfire, which is called MWF-017, reached 200 hectares. A similar warning also applies to Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Saprae Creek and Fort McMurray First Nation.

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“If you live in an area not under these evacuation orders, please allow these communities to evacuate first. It’s important that we approach this in a safe and orderly and respectful manner,” said Jody Butz, the RMWB’s regional fire chief and emergency director, during a press conference.

“It’s very important for me to know that this fire activity is very different than the 2016 horse river wildfire. We have an abundance of resources and we are well positioned to respond to this situation.”

Despite Butz’s warnings, plenty of people in other neighbourhoods crowded Highway 63 in a rush to join the evacuation. Wood Buffalo RCMP closed access to parts of Highway 63 so the route could only be used by people in evacuation zones. It will take time for emergency officials to calculate the true number of people that left Fort McMurray.

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Butz said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference he is confident no other evacuation orders will be issued today for the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region. He also said there are no signs the wildfire will cross the Athabasca River, for now.

evacuation
People cross the Athabasca River to leave Fort McMurray after the RMWB ordered the evacuation of the Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek on May 14, 2024. Despite pleas for people outside the designated neighbourhoods to stay home, people in other neighbourhoods started leaving. Image from AMA Road Reports

Unpredictable winds started pushing wildfire towards Fort McMurray

Winds are pushing the wildfire northeast towards Fort McMurray. Current predictions say winds will start pushing the wildfire west and northwest around 8 p.m. However, Butz also said the weather has gone from helpful to adversarial for firefighters battling the wildfire.

“The forecast in the previous days was very favourable. There was favourable winds that pushed the fire and the smoke away from the community. There was also some forecasts for precipitation. That changed and those are things that we can’t control,” said Butz.

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Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josee St. Onge says firefighters have been pulled from the fire line because of safety concerns. Air tankers and helicopters are dropping water along the edges of the wildfire to slow its growth.

“We are setting up defences between the forest and the structures. In that space, we are not going anywhere and we won’t back down,” he said.

Butz said he has “a high, high level of confidence” firefighters will succeed in keeping the wildfire out of Fort McMurray. At the press conference, in previous interviews and during a meeting with council, Butz cited advantages firefighters today have that didn’t exist in 2016.

There are fewer fuel sources for the fire because the 2016 Horse River wildfire burned through dead and dry vegetation that had piled up for years. The fire is now burning through dead grass and trees blackened from 2016.

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Strategies and tactics for fighting wildfires have also improved in eight years. There are more fire guards closer to Fort McMurray. The wildfire is being fought by more firefighters, vehicles and equipment compared to the 2016 wildfire.

Plenty of people with leadership positions in emergency management are veterans of the 2016 wildfire. People also have more experience going through evacuations.

“This fire is much different than 2016,” said Butz, who hoped reentry will be “quite quick.” “We are far more prepared and we have definitely reduced the impact of welfare on our communities.”

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A wildfire burns southwest of Fort McMurray, as seen from Real Martin Drive on May 14, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Evacuation better organized, but frustrations linger about secondary route

Jennifer Dahl, an Abasand resident who lost her home in the 2016 wildfire, said she was grateful she had plenty of notice to leave Fort McMurray. In 2016, emergency officials were late to warn people that the wildfire had crossed a river and was rushing towards the city. This time, people in the four neighbourhoods were given two-hour notice.

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Dahl remembers driving through flames eight years ago and her family scattered in the chaos. There were no treacherous drives through fires this time. Her family had belongings packed in their living room since Friday. The family had a plan to leave if an evacuation order was given. When that order arrived, Dahl was able to get her kids from school.

“We were all able to be together and make the decisions about what to pack, whereas in 2016 we were all split up and I was the only one with my little toddler,” said Dahl, as she drove to Edmonton. “Every fire season we’re anxious and we really see how better organized we are this time around.”

Dahl says traffic was calm and flowed smooth, but she saw signs not every driver remained calm. She passed fender benders on her way out of the city and saw some people driving aggressively.

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Watching the long traffic lines angered Mike Jones, who said he is frustrated there is no secondary route out of Fort McMurray. Just like in 2016, people leaving Fort McMurray are travelling north on Highway 63 or south on Highways 63 or 881.

“The shovel should have been in the ground as soon as we got back from the evacuation in 2016. Instead it turned into an election promise from both parties and now it’s an empty promise. Nothing has come of it,” said Jones in an interview. “Here we are in a situation where people’s lives are at stake.”

The proposed East Clearwater Highway, which would have ran parallel Fort McMurray by connecting Fort McKay and Anzac, was killed by council last July. The province lost interest in the project as attention focused on a highway connecting Fort McMurray to Grande Prairie.

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“There’s lots of reasons why that highway should exist… but having this emergency access route should have been a no-brainer and I can’t believe it didn’t happen,” said Jones.

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Smoke from a wildfire burning southwest of Fort McMurray are reflected in a marsh near Real Martin Drive in the Wood Buffalo neighbourhood on May 14, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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