Newspaper article International New York Times

Thousands Evacuate as Erratic Canadian Wildfire Overwhelms Firefighters

Newspaper article International New York Times

Thousands Evacuate as Erratic Canadian Wildfire Overwhelms Firefighters

Article excerpt

A wildfire that began last weekend in Fort McMurray remained out of control on Wednesday morning. Its speed and shifting direction have made it too dangerous to tackle from the ground.

Walls of flame driven by strong, shifting winds raged out of control on Wednesday through Fort McMurray, Alberta, where firefighters were helpless to stop the destruction of one neighborhood and the ravaging of several more.

The whole population of the city, the center for Canada's oil sands region, was ordered to evacuate on Tuesday evening once the fire, which began in woodlands outside the city, had overwhelmed firefighters' efforts to hold it at bay. More than 50,000 people fled, jamming the only route out of the city, Highway 63.

As the road became gridlocked, it took motorists five hours or longer to travel about 12 miles to evacuation centers at the oil- sands work camps north of Fort McMurray, and the going was no better southward toward Edmonton, the nearest sizable city, about 270 miles away.

Photos posted by residents on social media and video from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation showed flames several stories high menacing Highway 63, and some residents said mild panic set in when the fire jumped the highway, closing if for several hours on Tuesday. Northbound motorists took to the grassy median and even began driving the wrong way on the southbound lanes in hopes of escaping the city faster.

"I looked in my rearview mirror, and all I saw was black," one man told CBC. After unsuccessfully trying to defend his house with a garden hose, he said, he scooped up a few personal belongings and, finding one road blocked by flames, drove his car down a grassy hill to reach another, briefly becoming mired in mud on the way.

"You don't know what to grab," he said, adding that he had unwisely ignored orders from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to leave earlier. "You don't expect this."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday that he had pledged the national government's "total support" for the firefighting efforts, aid for evacuees and other needs during a telephone call with Rachel Notley, the premier of Alberta. Mr. Trudeau said offers of support from local governments across Canada had been pouring in as well. …

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