Convoy of stranded residents speed through fire-ravaged Canadian city

By Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton. CONKLIN/LAC LA BICHE (Reuters) – A convoy of stranded residents sped back through the Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray, escaping the fire-ravaged region under police escort on Friday, taking the only route out as the massive wildfire spread. Google+

A Mountie surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this May 4, 2016 image posted on social media. Courtesy Alberta RCMP/Handout via REUTERS
A Mountie surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this May 4, 2016 image posted on social media. Courtesy Alberta RCMP/Handout via REUTERS

Fire enveloped Fort McMurray, burning some 210,000 acres (85,000 hectares) in the area, forcing 88,000 people to flee on Tuesday and Wednesday, and threatening two oil sands sites south of the city. While the main fire turned southeast on Thursday, away from town, parts of the city still burned.

With helicopters overhead and police roadblocks at every turnoff on the road, the convoy will not stop until vehicles pass the mandatory evacuation zone, south of Fort McMurray, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman said.

Cecil Dickason, a Fort McMurray resident who was part of the convoy, said the battered city looked “awful.” Others described the city as dark and smoke-filled, pockmarked with charred and abandoned vehicles and roadside spot fires.

“It reminded us of a war zone,” said Marisa Heath, who spent 36 hours in her truck on the side of the highway with her husband, two dogs, a cat and seven kittens. “Eerie. All you could see was cement foundations of houses.”

The evacuation from the north was expected to take four days, regional authorities said on Twitter.

“Things have calmed down in the city a little bit, but guys are out as we speak, fighting fires, trying to protect your property,” said local fire chief Darby Allen in a video message to residents posted late on Thursday night.

“The beast is still up, it’s surrounding the city, and we’re here doing our very best for you.”

South of Fort McMurray, CNOOC Nexen’s Long Lake oil sands facility and Athabasca Oil’s Hangingstone project were in danger, according to emergency officials. Both facilities have been evacuated.

Robin Smith of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo that includes Fort McMurray did not have an immediate update on the status of the energy infrastructure, including Enbridge Inc’s Cheecham terminal and Long Lake project, noting that most big industrial sites have private firefighting units.

“In that sense they are also able to defend themselves,” said Smith.

Canadian crude prices stabilized in thin trading on Friday as the wildfire kept nearly one-third of Canadian oil sands production shuttered. Officials could not say when production would resume.

About 720,000 barrels per day of capacity was shut down, according to a Reuters estimate, boosting the price of oil. [O/R]

8,000 TO BE AIRLIFTED OUT

Evacuees who have spent days at roadsides and oil sands camps north of town did not know whether their homes were destroyed. Most have few possessions with them, and some left pets behind.

Footage from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp showed a long line of vehicles north of Fort McMurray on Friday morning, waiting to be leave, a few at a time for the drive south.

Some 25,000 people had fled north on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to officials, as the blaze closed off their only route south.  About 8,000 people will be airlifted out, officials said, but most are expected to drive south.

“The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents,” said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in a press briefing late Thursday.

Notley said it would not be responsible to speculate on when residents would be allowed to return: “We do know that it will not be a matter of days,” she said.

With Alberta’s economy already struggling before the fires, the government said Friday that 20,800 jobs lost in April, the most of any Canadian province.

Although the cause of the fire was not known, tinder-dry brush, low humidity, and hot, gusting winds made it nearly impossible to control.

The blaze, which erupted last Sunday, grew more than tenfold from 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares) on Wednesday to some 210,000 acres (85,000 hectares) on Thursday, an area nearly 10 times the size of Manhattan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau planned to fly to the devastated region in the coming weeks but ruled out an immediate visit. The government has provided planes and helicopters and 7,000 cots for emergency shelters, with 13,000 more on the way.

“A prime minister showing up in Fort McMurray when firefighters are busy trying to contain a massive raging wildfire is not a particularly helpful thing,” he told reporters in Toronto.

(Additional reporting by Ethan Lou, Allison Martell in Toronto, Nia Williams in Calgary, Catherine Ngai, David Gaffen in New York, David Ljunngren, Leah Schnurr in Ottawa; Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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