A catastrophic wildfire that has forced all 88,000 residents to flee Fort McMurray in western Canada grew tenfold on Thursday, cutting off evacuees in camps north of the city and putting communities to the south in extreme danger.
Authorities scrambled to organize an airlift of 8,000 people from the camps on Thursday night and hoped to move thousands more to safer areas as the fast-moving fire threatened to engulf huge areas of the arid western province of Alberta.
Officials said 25,000 people had taken shelter in the oil sands work camps when the fires engulfed the city. The remaining 17,000 would have to wait until fuel reserves were refilled and the opening of a main highway to drive themselves south.
The out-of-control blaze has burned down whole neighborhoods of Fort McMurray in Canada's energy heartland and forced a precautionary shutdown of some oil production, driving up global oil prices.
The Alberta 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 a total of 49 wildfires, with seven considered out of control.
Three days after the residents were ordered to leave Fort McMurray, firefighters were still battling to protect homes, businesses and other structures from the flames. More than 1,600 structures, including hundreds of homes, have been destroyed.
Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, described the week's harrowing events as the largest fire evacuation in Alberta's history.
"Homes have been destroyed. Neighborhoods have gone up in flames. The footage we've seen of cars racing down highways while fire races on all sides is nothing short of terrifying," he said. The Alberta community looked "like a war-torn corner of the world instead of our own backyard," he added.
Officials warned that the communities of Anzac and Gregoire Lake Estates about 50 km south of Fort McMurray were "under extreme threat," late on Thursday, as the flames spread to the southeast.
Officials said with the fire moving to the south east, they are also hoping to be able to begin a ground evacuation from the north on Friday morning.
Although the cause of the fire was unknown, officials said tinder-dry brush, low humidity and hot, gusting winds left crews unable to stop the massive conflagration.
At least 680,000 barrels per day of crude output was offline by Thursday evening, according to Reuters calculations, or roughly 20% of Canada's crude production. The outage is expected to climb as major players in the region cut production.
Athabasca Oil said on Thursday that rapidly advancing fires in the south of the city were behind its decision to shut down its Hangingstone oilsands project and evacuate all personnel. In a statement, the company estimated that the fire front was just 5km away from its facility.
Authorities said there had been no known casualties from the blaze itself, but fatalities were reported in at least one vehicle crash along the evacuation route.
Notley said a water tanker plane slid off the runway in another part of the province. Police said the two pilots survived, but were taken to hospital as a precaution.
Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team