Fort McMurray Wildfire Grows Tenfold as Mass Evacuations Continue

"The sky was black and orange. There were--and are still--so many people trapped." (Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/EPA )

Fort McMurray Wildfire Grows Tenfold as Mass Evacuations Continue

Thousands escorted further out of town by truck convoys as others take shelter in nearby oil worker camps

The devastating wildfire in the Canadian province of Alberta has grown tenfold, destroying more than 100,000 hectares (roughly 247,000 acres) by Friday morning as convoys of trucks and helicopter airlifts continued evacuating the town of Fort McMurray.

Between 80,000 and 90,000 people have already been forced to flee from their homes as Alberta declared a state of emergency. Officials said about 25,000 people have taken refuge in nearby tar sands work camps, and the trucks will escort them further south.

CBC News reports:

From there, many will make their way on to Edmonton or Calgary, to be housed in evacuation centres or with family or friends.

Those in the convoys will be the first residents to see the carnage created by the terrifying wildfire that tore into town Tuesday, raining embers and consuming neighbourhoods and, at times, seeming to threaten the entire community.

Without rainfall, efforts to slow or stop the blaze will be futile, according to Chad Morrison, the province's manager of wildfire prevention.

"Let me be clear: air tankers are not going to stop this fire," Morrison said. "It is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain."

Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said in a press briefing Thursday that it is unclear when Fort McMurray residents will be able to return home--but it won't be soon.

"The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents," Notley said. "It is simply not possible, nor is it responsible, to speculate on a time when citizens will be able to return. We do know that it will not be a matter of days."

The fire comes after an especially dry and warm winter for Alberta, which is also a central region in tar sands production, leading many climate advocates to frame the wildfire as a devastating consequence of the fossil fuel era--one with a catastrophic human toll.

However, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out during a recent news conference, linking those factors amid an ongoing tragedy risks appearing insensitive to the residents' ordeal.

"Anytime we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster, I think there's a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome," he said.

To that end, many are instead focusing their attention on contributing to rescue efforts. Rabble's Mercedes Allen writes:

In the immediate short term, the best way to help is to donate to the Red Cross. If you'd like to do that the easy way, you can pledge $5 for every time you text 'redcross' to 30333 (yes, you can do it more than once).

[....] Evacuated residents should email with their name and location to confirm that they are safe, if they haven't already. People can offer and receive help via the Facebook Open Source Help Page and on Twitter @YMMHelp. There is also evacuation advice for those who still need it at @RMWoodBuffalo and @511Alberta. The Globe and Mail has more tips. CBC has information on mitigating wildfire health hazards.

Supporters Of AB Rescues has information for pet owners needing temporary pet housing and advises people who still have animals in their home but are not home to "contact Pulse 780 743 7000 or RMWB by-law at 780 788 4200."

In Calgary, evacuees were greeted with solidarity from Syrian refugees who had resettled in Canada after fleeing war at home. One woman, Rita Khanchet, who was granted asylum in Canada along with her husband and son just five months prior, posted a message in Arabic to a private Facebook group for new immigrants that read, "[Canadians] gave us everything. And now it's time to return the favor."

The post was shared to the Syrian Refugee Support Group page, and offers of help reportedly came within hours. "All the Syrians are saying, 'I'm ready to give, I'm ready to give,'" the group's co-founder, Saima Jamal, told the Calgary Herald.

Meanwhile, on the ground, evacuees described seeing "apocalyptic" scenes as they were escorted out of town on the truck convoy. One resident, Erica Decker, who was forced to take shelter in the worker camps until the evacuation continued, told the Guardian that her family "knew we wouldn't have anything to go back to."

"It was like something out of a movie," she said of their fiery exit to Edmonton. "It was absolutely apocalyptic. There were vehicles stranded everywhere. The sky was black and orange. There were--and are still--so many people trapped."

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