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Fort McMurray wildfire remains volatile but weaker winds expected to ease the danger

A wildfire that forced more than 6,600 people from their homes in Fort McMurray continues to grow, threatening a northeastern Alberta community that was ravaged by fire eight years ago.

6,600 people forced from evacuation zone as fire grows to nearly 21,000 hectares

A pumper truck sprays bright red fire retardant on trees. The sky is smoky.
A pumper truck sprays fire retardant on trees around the evacuated neighbourhood of Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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A wildfire that forced more than 6,600 people from their homes in Fort McMurray continues to grow, threatening a northeastern Alberta community that was ravaged by fire eight years ago.

Four Fort McMurray neighbourhoods — Beacon Hill, Abasand, Prairie Creek and Grayling Terrace — were evacuated Tuesday as a wildfire grew dangerously close. Evacuees are being told they will likely remain out their homes for at least another week, possibly longer. 

As of Wednesday morning, the fire had consumed nearly 21,000 hectares of forest, after almost doubling in size the day before, and moved closer to the community as it spread rapidly toward the northwest. 

After days of volatile fire activity, a favourable change in the weather is expected Wednesday with cooler temperatures and weaker winds that are expected to push the fire away from homes and businesses. 

During a news conference Wednesday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith acknowledged that Fort McMurray is no stranger to the devastation wildfires can cause. 

"As residents rushed to leave their homes, I know that this will bring back difficult memories from the devastating fires of 2016, and I'm sure these memories will create fear and uncertainty for many in Fort McMurray. 

"My sympathy is with everyone facing this situation but safety must remain our top priority." 

The fire is being treated as a top priority by government authorities with 117 firefighters along with 14 helicopters now dispatched to the region.

On Wednesday, the province announced a fire ban and an off-highway-vehicle restriction for the Fort McMurray and High Level regions in an attempt to prevent new fires from sparking. 

Hours after the fire ban was announced, officials reported that a new fire had detected about 10 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. However, on Wednesday afternoon officials clarified the fire is about three kilometres from the community.

It's burning out of control and covers about one hectare. Crews continue to battle another 1.8-hectare blaze in Fort Chipewyan, a remote community in the far northern reaches of the regional municipality.

WATCH l Premier says safety is top priority during wildfire update from provincial officials:

‘We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to keep Albertans safe’: Alberta premier

8 days ago
Duration 3:39
Premier Danielle Smith says the evacuation order in Fort McMurray brings back memories of the 2016 wildfire. But Smith assures residents that officials are monitoring the situation and will have Alberta’s back. Forestry Minister Todd Loewen announced a fire ban in the Fort McMurray and High Level forest areas.

The fire threatening Fort McMurray spread rapidly Tuesday, fanned by parched conditions, high temperatures and extreme winds that pushed the flames toward the community's southwestern edge.

Black plumes of smoke funnelled across the sky Tuesday as the wildfire began to consume areas previously burned in 2016, when a wildfire forced the largest evacuation in Alberta history and destroyed thousands of homes and other structures. 

It was a familiar scene for many Fort McMurray residents as trucks and cars clogged all roads leading south and firefighters prepared to again defend the city, including many streets destroyed by fire eight years ago.   

Outside the evacuation zone, the rest of Fort McMurray, and some surrounding communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, remain on evacuation alert — with residents needing to be ready to leave on short notice.

The wildfire continues to burn out of control. As of Wednesday morning, the closest point of the fire was about 5.5 km from the Fort McMurray landfill on the southern outskirts of the community and 4.5 km from the intersection of highways 63 and 881 — the only highways leading south out of the oilsands hub.

Firefighters have contended with extreme conditions and crews were pulled from the front lines Tuesday due to dangerous conditions, pushing the firefight into the sky. 

Helicopters and air tankers continue to fly while crews on the ground build containment lines and set up sprinkler systems to protect homes and businesses under threat. 

In an update posted Wednesday morning, Alberta Wildfire said a shift in the winds is expected to push the fire away from Fort McMurray and Highway 63. 

Less than one millimetre of rain fell on the wildfire overnight Tuesday. The forecast is for winds to calm.

Alberta Wildfire and the municipality have entered into a unified command agreement and are working together to handle the crisis.

Crews have begun to move into the evacuation zone to protect the neighbourhoods most under threat with structure protection such as sprinkler systems. 

Conditions remain extreme

Josee St-Onge, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire, said cooler temperatures and weaker winds give firefighters a chance to gain the upper hand. But conditions remain extreme, she said. 

The fight continues in the sky with helicopters and air tankers, she said. On the ground, the focus is on building containment lines, creating critical barriers for homes and businesses should the fire not retreat as hoped. 

"The change in the weather gives firefighters a good window to make progress but there's still a lot of work to be done to contain this wildfire," St-Onge said Wednesday.

"We are still expecting high fire activity today." 

The cause of the wildfire remains under investigation. 

Evacuees who require food or accommodation are told to report to a reception centre at the Cold Lake Agriplex, 4608 38th Ave. in Cold Lake, Alta.

RV and camping accommodations are available in Lac La Biche, Alta., but hotels are already full from an initial flood of evacuees who arrived Tuesday.

The City of Edmonton has set up an evacuee reception centre at Clareview Community Recreation Centre, 3804 139th Ave. The centre will provide food services, clothing, pet day care and health care. The Red Cross will be at the centre to co-ordinate hotel accommodations. 

Gerry Clarke, Edmonton's emergency support response team co-ordinator, said there were about 500 people who registered by 11 a.m. He expected to see up to 1,500 register by the end of the day. 

Clarke said the two-hour evacuation notice served people well, and allowed them time to prepare.  

"I think over the course of the last couple of years everybody's preparedness level has increased because of the wildfires," Clarke said. "We're seeing still a lot of people, but their requirements and needs aren't quite like they were the last couple of years." 

WATCH l Thousands leave their homes as Fort McMurray wildfire threatens community: 

Thousands ordered to evacuate Fort McMurray as wildfire threatens

8 days ago
Duration 3:21
More than 6,000 residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., headed south to safety as a large, out-of-control wildfire drew closer to their community. Other areas in Fort McMurray remain on evacuation alert and residents need to be ready to leave on short notice.

On Wednesday, Jody Butz, the regional fire chief, thanked firefighters for their work, and residents for ensuring neighbourhoods under threat were evacuated safely. 

Butz said many people left the community Tuesday, even in areas that are not under orders to evacuate. He said people living outside the official evacuation zones should feel safe to remain. 

"If you left Fort McMurray yesterday, not as a part of the evacuation order, you're welcome to come home, and you're welcome to feel safe being home," he said. 

"Other areas remain under an alert, but please know that we're monitoring the situation closely and we have confidence in the safety of these areas." 

Butz urged people forced to evacuate Fort McMurray to be patient. 

"Many people who have evacuated under an order are already starting to ask questions about when they might be able to return," he said.

"I can only say this in the simplest way: not until it's safe to return to these neighbourhoods. It must be safe."

Different from 2016

Butz has repeatedly reassured residents that the fire threatening Fort McMurray now is less dangerous than the blaze that devastated the community in 2016. 

The 2016 fire was relentless, spreading rapidly through the treetops through tinder dry forests. This blaze is moving low ground, through the muskeg and areas previously touched by fire and that is helping to stifle its growth, Butz said.

He said the community is better prepared and he remains confident the community will remain untouched. 

"I don't plan on losing any power to our residences and I also don't plan on losing any garden sheds," he said."I'm very confident in our resources.

"We're ready to defend our community if needed. But hopefully that won't come to that." 

The province will provide financial support for evacuees.

A spokesperson for the Alberta government said Tuesday that just like in previous years, evacuees who are away from home for at least seven days will get $1,250 per adult and $500 per child under 18.

In County of Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta, an evacuation order issued on Friday was downgraded to an evacuation alert on Wednesday.

The alert is in effect for residents located from Township Road 742 to 741 and Range Road 32 to the Smoky River. The Teepee Creek Fire, which prompted the alert, is now listed as being held. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.