Fort McMurray Wildfire: Thousands Evacuated as Blaze Spreads South

May 5, 2016 3:41 PM by NBC News

The wildfires raging through the Canadian province of Alberta have grown into a behemoth blaze that has consumed an area bigger than New York City.

It has now scorched 85,000 hectares — 328 square miles — Alberta provincial premier Rachel Notley said Thursday. By comparison, all five boroughs of New York City add up to just 304.6 square miles.

Notley warned that the 49 infernos, which forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray, could spread and devour more territory because "conditions are still tinder dry."

"Because so much of this is dependent on the weather ... that means that certainty is not a feature of any statements at this point," Notley said when asked if the worst of the fire was over. "Until we've got it under control, it would not be responsible to make any declarations."

There was a chance of rain in the forecast Thursday for Fort McMurray. But it appeared a deluge was needed to stop the intense wildfires that have already forced some 88,000 people to flee — the biggest evacuation in the province's history — and destroyed more than 1,600 homes and buildings.

While more than 1,000 firefighters frantically battled the blazes, at least seven of which were burning out of control, officials declared a state of emergency across the entire province of Alberta.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his country's House of Commons that the government will match all donations to the Red Cross relief effort for the fire refugees.

"We will make it through this most difficult time together," he said.

Meanwhile, escapees from the blaze counted their blessings — and feared for the future.

"We drove through flames," said escapee Sinead Cusack, who made it out of Fort McMurray with her husband and their cat. "Everything was burning....friends' houses burning. Not knowing who was where. Utter chaos."

"I just have a few clothes and valuables I could fit into a small suitcase and left," said Ian Seggie, who drove himself and some friends 467 miles south to Calgary — a seven-hour trip that took 14 hours because the highway was clogged with escapees. "It was a priority to get ourselves out."

Ryan Cox said he had just 45 minutes to pack a bag and get his wife Amanda and 2-year-old son Malcolm out of their townhouse.

"By the time we had gotten everything together, that was when the evacuation notice came," said Cox, now bunking in a hotel in Edmonton, some 280 miles south of the the fires. "Then when we had to drive through the valley I blew a tire, so I gunned it with a flat through downtown."

With the flames just 200 feet away, Cox said he pulled over his 2007 Ford Focus to change the tire — something he had never done before.

Luckily, said Cox, another motorist helped him and soon they found themselves fleeing through a frightening landscape that reminded him of the "Mad Max" movies and "The Grapes of Wrath."

Remarkably, there were no official reports of casualties except for a vehicle collision that Alberta Emergency Management Agency director Scott Long said hadn't been confirmed as caused by the fire.

Meanwhile, local officials also ordered a mandatory evacuation of Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation — which are roughly 30 miles south of Fort McMurray.

"The fires that are surrounding Fort McMurray right now could go in any direction," teary-eyed Alberta lawmaker Brian Jean told CTV. "My home is burnt to the ground but it's just stuff. All my stuff, all my memories. I lost a son last year."

The evacuation was "just crazy," oil worker Victor Howald told CTV. "There were people pulled over in ditches, thousands of pickups without fuel. It felt like the apocalypse."

Fort McMurray sits near the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Shell said it has shut down production at its Shell Albian Sands mining operation. Suncor, the largest oil sands operator, has reduced production at its regional facility 15 miles north of the city. And many other companies evacuated non-essential staff.

Oil prices jumped early Thursday, Reuters reported, noting that prices were also affected by escalating fighting in Libya. International benchmark Brent crude futures were trading at $45.36 per barrel at 2.54 a.m. ET, up 74 cents or 1.7 percent from their last close, after three days of declining prices, it reported.


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