UPDATED 5:52pm — HAPPENING NOW — A huge wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, destroyed an entire neighbourhood and burned homes and businesses in several others today, and continues to rage out of control tonight.
By late afternoon today (Tuesday Canadian time, Wednesday New Zealand time), the entire city of 60,000 had been ordered evacuated. Residents by the thousands fled the fire, and for hours caused gridlock on Highway 63, and even overwhelmed oilsands work camps, where beds and meals were offered.
Fire chief Darby Allen said the entire neighbourhood of Beacon Hill “appears to have been lost” and the fire burned many homes in other parts of the city.
No buildings were lost in the city’s downtown area, Allen said. Despite the devastation, there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.
As of 10:30 p.m. MT, officials reported the neighbourhoods of Abasand, Wood Buffalo, Dickensfield, and Waterways saw only some damage.
No estimates were available on the number of homes and businesses that were destroyed.
Witnesses reported the Flying-J gas station exploded, while the Super 8 Motel and a Denny’s restaurant were gutted.
Officials said about 17,000 residents escaped the city to the north, while another 35,000 drove south, at least half that number headed for Edmonton, 430 km away.
Gas stations were emptied of fuel along the way leaving many motorists stranded on the highway.
Fire officials said they expect Wednesday could be just as bad, with the wind expected to pick up and the hot, dry weather to continue.
Allen called Tuesday “a devastating day,” and said fire crews were simply overwhelmed by the speed and power of the wildfire.
“Everybody has given everything today to do the very best they could,” Allen said. “I can categorically state that everything that was absolutely possible to protect the community was done.”