By Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton
CONKLIN/LAC LA BICHE (Reuters) – Canada’s government sent trucks and helicopters on Friday to safely remove thousands of evacuees stranded north of a wildfire that ravaged nearly a quarter million acres around the Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
The out-of-control wildfire has consumed entire neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, forcing 88,000 to evacuate, and threatened two oil sands sites south of the city. While the main fire have turned southeast, away from town, parts of Fort McMurray were still burning.
“Things have calmed down in the city a little bit, but guys are out as we speak, fighting fires, trying to protect your property,” said local fire chief Darby Allen in a video message to residents posted late in the evening.
“The beast is still up, it’s surrounding the city, and we’re here doing our very best for you.”
Some 25,000 evacuees were forced to flee north on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the blaze closed off their only route south. After days on roadsides and at oil sands camps, they clamored for answers on Thursday.
Thousands of evacuees will catch a glimpse of the scorched town as police escort them south towards Alberta’s major cities.
About 8,000 people will be airlifted out, officials said, but most are expected to drive south, with police escorts, once officials determine the highway is safe, likely on Friday.
“The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents,” said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in a press briefing late Thursday.
Notley said it would not be responsible to speculate on when residents would be allowed to return: “We do know that it will not be a matter of days,” she said.
South of Fort McMurray, CNOOC Nexen’s Long Lake oil sands facility and Athabasca Oil’s Hangingstone project were in danger, according to emergency officials. Both facilities have been evacuated.
Although the cause of the fire was not known, tinder-dry brush, low humidity, and hot, gusting winds have made it nearly impossible to control.
The blaze, which erupted last Sunday, grew more than tenfold from 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares) on Wednesday to some 210,000 acres (85,000 hectares) on Thursday, an area nearly 10 times the size of Manhattan.
(Additional reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)