Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire forces out hundreds of residents in 4 neighbourhoods

Hundreds of residents in four neighbourhoods in the southern end of Fort McMurray have been ordered out as a wildfire threatens the Alberta community, bringing back memories of a devastating fire eight years earlier. 

The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo said Tuesday residents in Beacon Hill, Abasand, Prairie Creek and Grayling Terrace needed to leave by 4 p.m.

Regional fire chief Jody Butz said residents in the four neighbourhoods are being ordered out to clear room for crews to fight the fire, which has moved to within 10 kilometres of the community.

“We have the resources to defend these areas but we need people out of harm’s way,” he said during a news conference. 

An emergency evacuation warning remains in place for the rest of Fort McMurray and the communities of Saprae Creek, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation No. 468, Anzac and Rickards Landing Industrial Park.

Those residents have been told to prepare to leave on short notice.

Suzy Gerendi, who runs the dessert shop Sugarmonkey Bar in Beacon Hill, said she was already packed up when the evacuation order came down. 

Gerendi lived in Beacon Hill when fire overtook the area in 2016.

She immediately began the drive towards Edmonton with her three dogs. 

“It’s very, very dark and orange,” Gerendi said while driving.

“It brings up some memories and it’s not a good feeling.”

Residents were also dealing with heavy smoke and ash.

“It’s dark. The smoke is everywhere,” said resident Else Hoko.

Hoko picked up her two sons from school in Abasand after receiving the evacuation order. 

She said the boys helped the family of five, which includes a baby, pack into a vehicle and drive out. She had also fled in 2016.

“I’m so stressed,” she said.

She said she’s praying and asking for rain. 

“We trust in God.”

The 2016 fire destroyed 2,400 homes and forced more than 80,000 to flee. The Beacon Hill and Abasand neighbourhoods saw serious losses that year.

The current fire has grown to about 110 square kilometres and remains out of control.

It has also moved to within six kilometres of highways 63 and 881, the main roads south out of Fort McMurray. RCMP said Highway 63 northbound between the intersections with Highway 881 and Highway 69 was temporarily closed Tuesday afternoon to allow “preventive fire measures” to take place.

Josee St. Onge, an Alberta Wildfire information officer, said wind is pushing the fire towards the community.

She said crews have been pulled from the fire line for safety reasons, and air tankers and helicopters continue to drop water and retardant on the “active edges.”

“Unfortunately, these are not favourable winds for us, and the fire will continue to advance towards the town until we see a wind shift,” she said.

“We understand that this is a very stressful time for the community. I want to ensure we are doing everything we can.”

Crews continued to build a fire guard to protect the city of 68,000.

Butz said the municipality has an “abundance of resources” and is well positioned to respond to the fire. 

Mayor Sandy Bowman said he thanks residents for staying clam. 

“This is a completely different fire but still brings back those same traumatic feelings (from 2016),” Bowman said. 

“Be patient and caring with your neighbours and we’ll all work together to get through this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024.

— with files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon and Jeremy Simes in Regina.

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