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Thousands flee raging wildfire

Canadian Wildfires Force Evacuation of Entire City1:04

More than 80,000 people fell under a mandatory evacuation order as wildfires threatened Fort McMurray, Canada. No estimates were available on the number of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. Photo: AP

Flames from a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Tyler Burgett via AP

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THE entire population of the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, has been ordered to evacuate as a wildfire whipped by winds engulfed homes and sent ash raining down on residents.

More than 80,000 residents have been ordered to flee after an earlier order that had applied to almost 30,000 people, mostly on the city’s south side, was extended to tens of thousands more as flames continued to make their way into the city on Tuesday. Residents were panicked. Highway 63 is the only road out of the city and flames jumped the road.

Smoke fills the air as a small plane flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Smoke fills the air as a small plane flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta.Source:AP

The wildfire, whipped by unpredictable winds on a day of high temperatures, worsened dramatically in a short time and many residents had little notice to flee.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called it the biggest evacuation in the history of the province and said officials were doing all they could to ensure everyone’s safety. She said they were looking into the possibility of an airlift for residents with medical issues.

Traffic lines the highway as residents leave Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

Traffic lines the highway as residents leave Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta’s opposition party and a resident of the city, said much of downtown Fort McMurray is being destroyed by fire. He said flames are encroaching on the city centre and the city’s evacuated hospital is on fire.

“Our hospital is on fire, where my children were born,” Mr Jean said. “My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed.”

Smoke rises from a wildfire outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press via AP

Smoke rises from a wildfire outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

Scott Long of Alberta Emergency Management said the flames had burned a number of structures, but couldn’t say how many.

Carol Christian’s home was in one of the neighbourhoods under the order to leave. She said it was scary as she drove to an evacuation centre with her son and cat.

“When you leave ... it’s an overwhelming feeling to think that you’ll never see your house again,” she said, her voice breaking. “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 you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. We got out just in time.”’

This photo take through a car windshield shows smoke rising from a wildfire rages outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press via AP.

This photo take through a car windshield shows smoke rising from a wildfire rages outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press via AP.Source:AP

The main road into Fort McMurray, was closed at the southern entrance to the city after flames jumped the road. Pictures posted on Twitter showed long lines of traffic and skies darkened by thick smoke as flames licked the edges of roads.

Fort McMurray is the capital of Alberta’s oil sands region. The Alberta oil sands are the third largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that he spoke with Notley and said the federal government stands ready to help. He urged residents to follow evacuation orders.

Oil sands work camps were being pressed into service to house evacuees as the raging wildfire emptied the city. Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city’s south side.

Smoke fills the air and trees burn in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press via AP

Smoke fills the air and trees burn in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

Officials were also evacuating non-essential staff at Suncor’s base plant. It is 30 kilometres away and one of the closest facilities to the city. Spokesman Paul Newmarch said evacuees were moving into the plant’s work camps.

Will Gibson, a spokesman for Syncrude, which also has a plant north of the town, was himself one of the evacuees heading north away from the flames.

An evacuee gathers clothes from the back of a truck at a rest stop near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

An evacuee gathers clothes from the back of a truck at a rest stop near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

A family takes refuge in the back of their boat after evacuation at a rest stop near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

A family takes refuge in the back of their boat after evacuation at a rest stop near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

Mr Gibson said he had to flee his neighbourhood via a grass embankment because the fire had already cut off the road at both ends.

“I left my neighbourhood and there were houses on fire,” he said. “I don’t know if and when I’ll be going back.”

Smoke rises from a wildfire outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press via AP

Smoke rises from a wildfire outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

The large work camps can normally accommodate thousands of workers.

A local radio reporter said a trailer park that had been evacuated on Monday was on fire and flames were advancing toward businesses.

“It’s chaos on the roads. People are panicking. It’s gridlock on the roads. Flames are right next to a gas station,” said Carina Van Heerde with radio station KAOS.

Crews had seemed to be making progress controlling the blaze, burning since the weekend, but the situation worsened quickly on Tuesday. By midafternoon people from three neighbourhoods were told to leave immediately.

Smoke fills the air as a helicopter flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press via AP

Smoke fills the air as a helicopter flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Picture: Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press via APSource:AP

Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat ranged from very high to extreme in different areas.

The Alberta government banned all open fires except in designated camping sites in forested areas due to the threat. There were about 30 fires burning in the province.

The province was calling in more reinforcements to Fort McMurray, including 100 more firefighters and a giant helicopter that can dump more than 2000 litres of water at a time.

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