80,000 people flee flames as inferno razes Canadian city

Panicked Fort McMurray residents were forced to run for their lives. Picture: AP
Panicked Fort McMurray residents were forced to run for their lives. Picture: AP
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A fire that forced the evacuation of the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray in Alberta could get worse, officials have warned.

More than 80,000 residents were ordered to flee as flames moved into the city, destroying whole neighbourhoods, but no injuries have been reported.

It was absolutely horrifying when we were sitting in traffic, you look up and see the trees candle-topping

Resident Carol Christian

The Beacon Hill suburb in the south is said to have suffered the most damage from flames, with 80 per cent of homes lost.

Fire chief Darby Allen said wooded areas of the city are still burning but no structures were currently on fire. But Mr Allen said he was worried about the plumes of smoke he could see outside his window and was concerned about the wind and its direction. “It could be even more devastating unfortunately,” he said.

Firefighters are working to protect critical infrastructure, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only route to the city from the south. Forestry manager Bernie Schmitte said that there was still danger from “very high temperatures, low relative humidities and some strong winds”.

Canadian public safety minister Ralph Goodale said the “situation is fluid and evolving rapidly” and he is watching developments with “great concern”.

Alberta premier Rachel Notley called it the biggest evacuation in the history of the province.

Resident Carol Christian, who drove to the evacuation centre with her son and their cat, said: “When you leave it’s an overwhelming feeling to think that you’ll never see your house again.”

“It was absolutely horrifying when we were sitting in traffic. You look up and 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’.”

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

Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city’s south side.

Suncor, the largest oil sands operator, said it was reducing production at its regional facility – about 15 miles north of the city – so as “to allow employees and their families to get to safety”.

The blaze has burned since Sunday and seemed on its way to being neutralised on Tuesday morning, but it overwhelmed firefighters when winds shifted quickly in the middle of the afternoon.