It’s called the Beast and as it scorches northern Alberta, leaving Fort McMurray a charred ghost town in its wake, there is nothing to indicate that 500 firefighters have been able to tame it.
Quite the opposite. With its insatiable appetite for destruction, the raging wildfire was expected to double in size Saturday as it morphed eastward to the Saskatchewan border.
Even with reinforcements en route, including an additional 80 firefighters from Ontario, the fight against the out-of-control blaze could go on for months, a senior wildfire manager says.
It has already torched more than 1,500 square kilometres of dry forest, scattered 80,000 residents and created countless everyday heroes as an entire nation pitches in to help this ravaged community.
“Unless we have a significant rain event of 100 millimetres of rain, we expect to be out fighting the fire in the forested area for months to come,” Chad Morrison, with Alberta Wildfires, told a media briefing Saturday afternoon.
“That’s not uncommon with such large fires.”
There is no significant rainfall in the Fort McMurray forecast for the next two weeks.
While Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the fire was burning away from communities on Saturday, officials stressed it remains out of control.
Firefighters continued working to protect the downtown and homes in Fort McMurray and held the line for a second straight day, Notley said.
She added the gas supply has been turned off in the city and the power grid has been damaged. Water in the city isn’t drinkable and hazardous material will have to be cleaned up to make the community safe.
“The return won’t be in coming days,” said the premier. “Once the immediate fire damage is completed there will be an enormous amount of work to do to make the city safe and habitable.”
Meanwhile, those forced to flee Fort McMurray, many grabbing only a few items they could carry, continue to be overwhelmed by the generosity of their fellow Canadians.
A medical social worker who has worked in Fort McMurray for eight years escaped the incinerator her adopted home had become — “no one had to tell us to leave, we knew” — for an exodus to Edmonton with her family. There she posted a Facebook plea looking for a furnished “affordable house” to rent short-term in her hometown, Toronto.
Sarah Buller’s request for shelter for her husband, two children and herself received so many emailed responses that she hasn’t been able to get through them yet. She was also offered clothing for the whole family, baby items, food and babysitting.
“This has all been so horrific and sad,” Buller said from Edmonton Saturday night. “But the way people have reached out to help makes me want to cry — a good type of crying.”
In Ottawa, a professional golf instructor launched a gofundme page for her pregnant sister, due Saturday night, who had to bolt from her Fort McMurray home without even a toothbrush. The family is “overwhelmed” by the compassion as more than $12,000 has been raised in less than three days.
“It’s just unbelievable. Even strangers care about our situation. We live in an amazing country,” says Addi McLaren, whose pregnant sibling, Kyle McLaren, lost her house and one of the family cars. “Every time my sister looks at the Goodfundme page, she starts crying.”
During the evacuation, when they stopped along the highway, Buller said local farmers approached offering food, water and gas.
She believes the family home in Fort McMurray is one of the ones still standing but until they can return, they’d like to be in Toronto where her family, which includes boys who turn 1 and 3 later this month, has more support.
“People are definitely offering to open up their homes and even share a home with us. I’m very overwhelmed that people are just so good. People are very good,” she said, getting chocked up on the phone.
“We are very touched. The support that our family and Fort McMurray-ites have received in Edmonton is unbelievable. People have offered to give us their house (while) they stay in tents in their backyard.”
While there are countless similar tales of outsized humanity, there are also grim reminders of the long road still ahead before Fort McMurray becomes an inhabitable community again.
RCMP Insp. Kevin Kunetzki said Saturday that during their checks of houses in the city, officers are seeing significant signs of water and smoke damage.
Scott Long, of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said that may be one of the costs of protecting the community.
He said firefighters use large, industrial sprinklers to “spray continuous amounts of water on houses to protect them from embers, sparks, etc., from spontaneous combustion, from the heat. So it’s quite possible there could be water damage.”
While there may be some residents still lingering in Fort McMurray, at her press conference yesterday, Notley made it clear that couldn’t go on.
“Please listen carefully to this,” she said. “If you aren’t a police officer, a firefighter or otherwise have a first-responder role in the emergency, you should not be in Fort McMurray.”
The vast majority of personnel at both Syncrude and Suncor oil facilities in the area have been evacuated as a precaution.
“We do expect the fire to bump against the edge of the south end of the Suncor facility today,” said Morrison, but he added the companies’ highly trained industrial fire department would remain to protect the facilities.
A Syncrude spokesperson said its facility is in no immediate danger from fire but the anticipated arrival of smoke forced the evacuation of employees.
Leithan Slade said the company had been maintaining “minimal but critical” operations and staffing at the Mildred Lake site, but on Saturday evacuated around 1,200 employees and their families. That left roughly 300 on site, all of whom were anticipated to be evacuated by Saturday night. Most are heading south.
“It’s been overwhelming, the outpouring of generosity and support from people in Edmonton and Calgary and all over the country for that matter. People are staying with friends, family, complete strangers and evacuee centres,” said Slade. “Most folks seem to be OK finding accommodation.”
Slade said all 4,800 Syncrude employees would keep their jobs and continue to be paid.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the fire remains “unpredictable and dangerous.” He said firefighters from other provinces were being brought in to relieve those who have been battling what he calls “this beast of a fire” for a week.
Eighty firefighters from Ontario have already arrived. Goodale told a news conference in Regina that another 44 are on their way from Quebec and 22 from New Brunswick. Equipment, such as pumps, hoses and tankers, are also coming from other provinces.
“What we’re trying to do, with the co-operation of other provinces and territories, is bring in rotations of other firefighters that can give them a break.”
It remains unknown what sparked the fire. Mike Long, director of communications for the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, said the “cause of the fire is still under investigation.”
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