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'I’m just so scared for my city.' Thousands flee in largest evacuation in Alberta's history

Calgary Herald logo Calgary Herald 4/05/2016 Meghan Potkins, Calgary Herald
smoke.jpg 'I’m just so scared for my city.' Thousands flee in largest fire evacuation in Alberta history

As tens of thousands flee a ferocious wildfire in Fort McMurray, some residents are openly wondering what will be left to come back to.

More than 80,000 residents have been ordered to flee the oilsands city — the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history, including from the massive Slave Lake wildfires five years ago.

“I’m just so scared for my city,” said Krista Balsom, who packed up her vehicle and headed south to Anzac with her husband and stepdaughter after the fire changed course Tuesday afternoon. “I’m just so nervous for everyone else and so scared for what my city is becoming as we speak.”

People evacuating their homes downtown reported seeing helicopters dropping water or fire retardant on the municipal buildings on Franklin Avenue.

Highway 63 north and south of town became choked with traffic Tuesday afternoon as waves of residents fled the city. 

Reached on a mobile phone Tuesday afternoon trying to evacuate from the neighbourhood of Gregoire, former city councillor Russell Thomas said he was stuck in gridlock traffic and could see flames from his vehicle.

“I’m a little nervous. I can see the flames but it’s probably 500 yards away right now. The traffic is intense. Everybody trying to get south.”

Thomas was conducting a workshop with the United Way outside of town Tuesday when the fire escalated, separating him from his wife and two sons downtown. 

“My hope is that they’re going to be OK, obviously. The key is safety right now — get everybody to safety, we’ll deal with the property later.”

The entire population of the city is now under a mandatory evacuation order. An earlier order that had applied to almost 30,000 people, mostly on the city’s south side, was extended to tens of thousands more as flames continued to eat their way into the city.

Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat ranges from very high to extreme.

The province was calling in more reinforcements to Fort McMurray, including 100 more firefighters and a giant helicopter that can dump more than 2,000 litres of water at a time.

Thomas said he’s on the way to the evacuation centre with nothing but the clothes on his back.

“It’s going to be an intense 24 hours as we work our way through this, but it truly is a catastrophic event.”

— With files from The Canadian Press and Postmedia

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