Monday 5 December 2016

Canadian convoy under way as evacuees flee wildfire zone

Published 06/05/2016 | 00:56

Evacuees watch the wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alberta (AP)
Evacuees watch the wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alberta (AP)

A convoy of evacuees has begun the long drive out of work camps north of the fire-ravaged Fort McMurray area.

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Police and military were overseeing the procession of an estimated 1,500 vehicles.

Meanwhile, a mass airlift of evacuees was resuming, a day after 8,000 people were flown out.

In all, more than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray, in the heart of Canada's oil sands. Officials say no deaths or injuries related to the fire have been reported.

The Alberta provincial government, which declared a state of emergency, said more than 1,100 firefighters, 145 helicopters, 138 pieces of heavy equipment and 22 air tankers were fighting the fire, but Chad Morrison, Alberta's manager of wildfire prevention, said rain is needed.

"We have not seen rain in this area for the last two months of significance," Mr Morrison said. "This fire will continue to burn for a very long time until we see some significant rain."

Environment Canada forecast a 40% chance of showers in the area on Saturday.

About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday's mandatory evacuation, where oil sands work camps that usually house employees were used to house evacuees. But the bulk of the more than 80,000 evacuees fled south to Edmonton and elsewhere, and officials are moving everyone south where it is safer and they can get better support services.

The Alberta government is providing cash to 80,000 evacuees from the Fort McMurray fire to help them with their immediate needs.

Premier Rachel Notley said her cabinet has approved a payment of 1,250 Canadian dollars (£669) per adult and 500 Canadian dollars (£267) per dependent at a cost to the province of 100 million Canadian dollars (53m). She told a briefing in Edmonton that she wants people who were forced from their homes to know that the government "has their back".

More than 7,000 evacuees were flown to Edmonton and Calgary by Thursday night. It appeared the road was safe enough on Friday to move thousands more south.

Officials said a military helicopter led the evacuation convoy which passed through Fort McMurray where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings.

"That's why we had the helicopters ... just to make sure the motorists and responders are safe in case there's a sudden change in fire direction," said Sgt John Spaans, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman. "They would be able to notify everyone immediately."

Sgt Spaans said the goal was to get all vehicles out of the area on Friday, if the weather, fire and road conditions cooperate, but municipal officials later said it would take about four days.

Fort McMurray is surrounded by wilderness, and there are essentially only two ways out via road.

Fanned by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 75 square kilometres (29 square miles) on Tuesday to 850 square kilometres (330 square miles) on Thursday.

Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box.

"They are dealing with a beast of a fire, one of the worst we've ever seen," Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said. "There is a forecast of improved weather conditions with perhaps the possibility of some precipitation. But the humidity remains very low and the forest is very dry, high winds continue to cause dangerous circumstances."

Firefighters and water bombers from other Canadian provinces are being drafted in.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government has met all of the Alberta government's requests for assistance, including providing air assets and 7,000 cots for evacuees in emergency shelters, with 13,000 more on the way.

Press Association

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