Only rain can stop growing Alberta wildfires still threatening Fort McMurray: official

There are currently 49 wildfires burning in the region and seven are still out of control covering 85,000 hectares.

(View of Fort McMurray fire from above. Twitter/Alberta Premier Rachel Notley)

APTN National News
Only rain can stop the wildfires that forced the massive evacuation of Fort McMurray and the flames are expected to continue to grow over the coming days, according to a provincial official.

There are currently 49 wildfires burning in the region and seven are still out of control. The fires have now spread over 85,000 hectares and provincial officials still have no idea when the 88,000 people evacuated since Tuesday from Fort McMurray, Fort McMurray First Nation, Anzac and Gregoire Lake Estates will return home.

While the firefighting ranks now have 22 water bombers—including four arriving from Quebec—currently flying runs over Fort McMurray to protect buildings and houses, the aerial attack alone won’t stop the wildfire, said Chad Morrison, senior manager with Alberta Wildfire Prevention and Enforcement, during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

Only rain can stop the flames.

“Let me be clear, air tankers are not going to stop this fire, this fire is an extreme fire event,” said Morrison. “It is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get significant rain to help us.”

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Canadian Forces personnel from Task Force 2 were now on the ground to support command and control operations and give emergency officials from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo a break.

“This is a challenge of the scale and magnitude that we have rarely seen in the province,” said Notley.

The wildfire at one point threatened the airport and inflicted some minor damage, forcing the command centre to move to Anzac, which was also threatened by the wildfire. The command centre was re-established at its original locale by the airport by about 1 a.m. local time Thursday.

Currently, officials said work was underway to fly about 8,000 of 25,000 evacuees to Edmonton and Calgary who had been sent north to oil industry work camps. Officials said flyovers were also underway to determine whether it was safe to use Hwy 63, the only road south of Fort McMurray, and move the rest of the evacuees from the northern camps, said Scott Long, executive director of Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Long said a mobile gas station, provided by the Ministry of Transport, would also be used to gas-up vehicles for the trip south on the highway.

In addition to four military Ch-146 Griffin helicopters and a CC-130J Hercules transport aircraft, the ranks of the force against the wildfire includes about 100 wildfire firefighters on the ground, 10 additional helicopters and the 22 air bombers. There were well over 200 structural firefighters—those trained specifically for urban fires—and 25 fire engines protecting Fort McMurray from additional damage.

Water bombers were conducting runs over  Fort McMurray, dropping their loads on buildings and houses. The city has already suffered the loss of about 1,600 structures.

The fire also cut off supply lines to Fort Chipewyan, a fly-in community which sits about 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. While normally receiving resupply by air and barge from Fort McMurray, NorthWest Company was forced to redirect goods and fly them in through Fort Vermilion, Alta., according to a company official.

Fort Chipewyan, home to the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, along with the Metis, has seen an influx of about 700 evacuees from the fire, said Eriel Deranger, spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Several evacuees were picked up by nearly two dozen boats Wednesday from Fort McKay, which sits about 57 kilometres from Fort McMurray, and taken to Fort Chipewyan.

The fire around Fort McMurray has force several major oil producers to pause operations, including Shell and Suncor, according to reports. The oil industry is also providing the camps for evacuees sent north of Fort McMurray and providing aircraft to help fly them south.

Joseph Jobin, chief operating officer for Treaty 8 which counts many northern Alberta First Nations as members, said none were currently facing an immediate evacuation, but everyone is on standby.

The Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, which sits about 400 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, was evacuated for part of the day Wednesday as a result of a fire along the community’s edge. Some people were on their way back Thursday.

Canadian Forces personnel also help located a missing citizen Thursday.

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