Alberta declares state of emergency as wildfire forces hurried evacuation

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More than 80,000 residents were ordered to leave the city of Fort McMurray in the Canadian province as a nasty, ugly inferno raged amid shifting winds

The Canadian province of Alberta has declared a state of emergency, after a raging wildfire destroyed dozens of homes, engulfed several neighbourhoods in flames, and forced the hurried evacuation of an entire city.

More than 80,000 residents were ordered to leave the city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta on Tuesday, after shifting winds saw the blaze go from being largely in control to a nasty, ugly inferno, as described by the local fire chief. By Wednesday, more than 250 firefighters, helicopters and air tankers were fighting the fire.

Residents scrambled to make their way out of the city, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the main route out of the city and struggling to see the road through the thick grey haze that blanketed the highway. Flames licked the road and ash rained down on vehicles, while air tankers and helicopters flew overhead. Gas pumps soon ran dry, leaving many residents stranded on the highway overnight.

[With] the heat from the oncoming smoke and the flames, you could see mini-tornadoes forming near the road, resident Jordan Stuffco told the Canadian Press. It was something out of an apocalyptic movie.

Authorities warned that the hot, dry and windy weather expected on Wednesday would probably fuel the fire, which started on Sunday. The worst of the fire is not over, said Bernie Schmitte of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. Were still faced with very high temperatures, low relative humidity and some strong winds.

Hours later, the raging inferno forced authorities to declare a state of emergency. The provinces municipal affairs minister, Danielle Larivee,said the declaration would allow the province to better access external resources.

An accident on a nearby highway between an SUV and a tractor trailer unit had resulted in fatalities and sparked an additional fire, added Larivee. It was not immediately clear if the accident was related to the evacuation. The driver and passenger of the SUV died on the scene.

Officials said the fire had grown from about 1,200 hectares to span more than 10,000 hectares in the past two days. We had a devastating day yesterday and we are preparing for a bad day today, local fire chief Darby Allen said on Wednesday. We successfully evacuated 88,000 people. No one is hurt and no one is passed away right now. I really hope we can get to the end of this and we can still say that.

He described the wildfire as a nasty, dirty fire that was raging out of control, adding that all efforts to suppress it have so far failed. There are areas of the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them, and it will find them, and it will try and take them.

On Tuesday, 105 patients and clients including nine newborn babies were evacuated from citys only hospital as flames approached. The provinces main oil sands region, a number of oil sands work camps near Fort McMurray were turned into impromptu housing for evacuees. Neighbouring communities also reached out to residents as they fled the flames, staffing recreation centres to provide shelter and bringing gas to stranded motorists.

Other residents made their way to the evacuation camps that had been set up outside the city or found lodging in the city of Edmonton, some 435km away, where they took stock of what they had left behind.

When you leave its an overwhelming feeling to think that youll never see your house again, Carol Christian told the Canadian Press. Along with her son and cat, she had driven to an evacuation centre. It was absolutely horrifying when we were sitting there in traffic. You look up and then you watch all the trees candle-topping up the hills where you live and youre thinking, Oh my God. We got out just in time.

Municipal authorities on Wednesday began detailing the damage that had been caused by the wildfire, including one neighbourhood where 80% of the homes were destroyed. Images on social media showed the flattened neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, the rubble of its many destroyed homes strewn about. In another neighbourhood, a dozen trailers also went up in flames, while serious losses were reported in several other areas. Officials estimate that 1,600 structures have so far been damaged or destroyed by the fire.

Some in the city had as little as 30 minutes to evacuate, with many making it out with little more than their vehicle and the clothes on their back. I didnt have time for nothing, said Shawn Brett. He had been at home when his friends called to warn him of the encroaching blaze. He jumped on his Harley motorcycle and made his way out, fighting his way through the smoke and flames that had engulfed his neighbourhood.

I literally drove through the flames. I had ashes hitting my face and the heat from the fire was that bad, he told the the Canadian Press. Everything was jammed. It was nothing but the biggest chaos Id ever seen.

Justin Trudeau, Canadas prime minister, said on Wednesday he had spoken to the Alberta premier, Rachel Notley, to offer the governments support. I really do want to highlight that Canada is a country where we look out for our neighbours, and we are there for each other in difficult times, Trudeau told his Liberal caucus. And certainly in Fort McMurray, the difficult times they are going through right now is something that we are going to unite around.

He shot down earlier comments made by Elizabeth May, the leader of Canadas Green Party, that linked the fire to the global climate crisis.

One thing we know is that with climate change there will be more extreme events, said Trudeau. But, we know very well that placing a direct link between any fire or a flood and climate change goes a step beyond what is helpful and does not benefit a conversation we must have.

The premier of Alberta said on Wednesday that she planned to head to Fort McMurray to get a firsthand look at the scope of the crisis. Our hearts are with the families who have had to leave their homes in Fort McMurray, said Notley from Edmonton.

Nearby communities have sent emergency personnel and vehicles to the city. The provincial government has also been in continuous contact with other provinces and the federal government, she said, and now has the resources needed to battle the blaze. But of course the weather is the key issue.

Queen Elizabeth said she was shocked and saddened by the news of the wildfires Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected, and we send our heartfelt thanks to the firefighters and the other emergency workers, she said in a statement.

The wildfire comes as a devastating blow to a city already reeling from the impact of slumping oil prices, said David Yurdiga, the MP for the area. The Alberta oil sands rank as one of the worlds largest reserves of oil. Even with the destruction caused by the fire thus far we will need federal funds to get back on our feet, he wrote in a statement. This city has seen thousands of people leave their homes because of the downturn in oil. Fort McMurray cannot handle that and this wildfire.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/04/alberta-declares-state-of-emergency-wildfire-canada