Growing wildfires across Western Canada are forcing thousands from their homes

Wildfire evacuations grow

Wildfires have forced thousands out of several communities in Western Canada.

In Fort Nelson, B.C., about 4,700 people are out of their homes. Roughly 6,600 residents have been evacuated out of parts of Fort McMurray, Alta., while the rest of the city remains on evacuation alert. And a fire near Cranberry Portage, Man., has forced out about 500 residents.

Here are the latest developments:

UPDATE 5:45 p.m.

The mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which includes Fort Nelson, says a second fire burning near the community could complicate plans to get evacuated residents home.

Rob Fraser says the Patry Creek fire, about 25 k.m. north of town, is burning near a "swampy" area and the hope is that the damp ground will slow the spread.

The Patry Creek fire has grown to 718 square kilometres, up from an estimated of 464 square kilometres, just 24 hours earlier.

Fraser says any plan to return people home will only happen when the situation is deemed safe, and will be done in a staged process.

UPDATE 4:45 p.m.

The MLA for Peace River North, representing Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, says firefighters at the front lines of the wildfire are telling him they have never seen conditions this volatile.

Dan Davies, with the Opposition BC United, says the ground is tinder dry.

He says heavy equipment operators digging fire breaks say the ground is on fire.

UPDATE 4:30 p.m.

Outside the emergency services centre at the North Peace Arena, a group of volunteers formed a daisy chain passing cases of bottled water from a truck bed.

Evacuees tricked out holding folded pieces of paper and returned to their vehicles as a public information meeting continued on inside with Fort Nelson mayor Rob Fraser.

The arena parking lot was nearly full, but vehicles pulled out and left as the meeting continued on inside.

UPDATE 4:20 p.m.

A wildfire burning about 25 kilometres north of Fort Nelson has exploded in size, though the BC Wildfire Service says it does not pose an immediate threat to the town that’s already evacuated due to another blaze just outside the community.

The service says the Patry Creek fire has grown to 718 square kilometres, up from yesterday’s estimate of 464 square kilometres.

It says the current forecast suggests cooler temperatures and higher relative humidity will help in the short term, but extreme fire behaviour may flare up again in the region.

The service is planning a prescribed ignition to reduce fuels in an area north of the Fort Nelson River and adjacent to Highway 77 to secure the route and a nearby bridge.

Meannwhile, the BC Wildfire Service says a fire that prompted evacuated orders by the Peace River Regional District and Doig River First Nation is now classified as being held.

It says control lines were firm overnight at the fire that spans an estimated 6.5 square kilometres north of Fort St. John, where many evacuees from Fort Nelson have gathered.

The service says groundcrews are working on direct attack strategies on the south, east and west flanks of the fire while helicopters dump water on priority areas.

UPDATE: 3:17 p.m.

Thousands of residents forced to flee a fierce, wind-whipped wildfire threatening the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray were told Wednesday they’ll likely be out for days and may be allowed back as early as Tuesday.

Jody Butz, the fire chief in charge of the Fort McMurray region, said while Tuesday is the estimated return date, there are a lot of variables.

"This does not guarantee that you'll return on that day, but we want to advise you to be evacuated until then," Butz told a news conference.

"There are a number of criteria with the wildfire in order to lift that evacuation order.

“Typically, [lifting the order] centres on the containment of the fire, but every fire situation is unique."

About 6,600 residents in four southern neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray were ordered out a day earlier when a wildfire threatening from the southwest splayed in multiple directions, fed by high winds, sending columns of smoke skyward.

The rest of Fort McMurray and other surrounding subdivisions remain under evacuation alert. Residents have to be ready to move quickly.

Roads were initially busy as even those who were not ordered out decided to leave.

Butz said those who have fled voluntarily are welcome back.

"The highway is open in both directions and traffic is flowing freely. Businesses and day-to-day operations continue for many parts of the region,” Butz said.

UPDATE: 12:00 p.m.

Eileen McPhee was at a funeral north of Fort Nelson when the town was ordered evacuated last Friday, and she says she felt "helpless" when she heard about the wildfire pushing toward her community.

Now in Fort St. John, McPhee needs supplies for her dog, and she was looking through a plastic bin of dog collars available outside the emergency services centre at the arena where evacuees are set to gather for a public meeting later today.

She says road closures forced her to take a long, circuitous route through Smithers and Prince George to get to Fort St. John, where her daughter was staying.

UPDATE: 11:25 p.m.

The mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality in B.C. says volunteers providing services for evacuees are doing the best they can to help the sudden influx of people.

Rob Fraser says having an estimated 3,500 who are escaping from the fire near Fort Nelson arrive at Fort St. John, population 25,000, is a "shock."

Fraser, whose jurisdiction includes the town of Fort Nelson, says volunteers are executing the provincial emergency services program the way they have been trained, and are asking people to be patient.

UPDATE: 11:15 p.m.

Fire officials in Alberta say a favourable wind today should push the fire near Fort McMurray away from the city.

Alberta Wildfire information officer Josee St-Onge says that while there will still be flame and smoke in the area the wind will be from the northwest at 10 kilometres an hour.

She says weather can change at any point but it is a more favourable wind than Tuesday.

Director of Emergency Management Chief Jody Butz says at this point those evacuated should expect to be away from their homes until at least next Tuesday.

UPDATE: 10:55 a.m.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says fires this year have already burned through more than 2,300 square kilometres.

That's already enough to place 2024 in the middle of rankings for total amounts burned in entire years since 2008.

A record 28,400 square kilometres of land was scorched last year.

The wildfire service says there are 128 active wildfires in the province, including 15 that are burning out of control.

UPDATE: 10:45 a.m.

Diane Ens, a Fort Nelson resident for more than 30 years, was already packed for a planned trip to a hot spring when her street was evacuated.

Ens, along with her dog, three cats, three daughters and mother-in-law, went into the town before it was also was evacuated.

She now she finds herself in Fort St. John in what she calls a state of limbo.

Ens says she has been scrolling her phone constantly looking for updates on the situation back home, and she's trying to stay optimistic.

UPDATE: 10:40 a.m.

Many police officers are in the Fort McMurray neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, one of four areas in the city that are under an evacuation order.

They are keeping a logbook of who is coming and going.

A handful of residents were briefly allowed to return to their homes to get forgotten but critical items, including prescription medicine.

UPDATE: 10:25 a.m.

Jody Butz, the fire chief for the Fort McMurray region, says those who have been told to leave evacuated neighbourhoods may not be able to return until Tuesday.

He says it could even be longer.

He says about 6,600 people have left, and 650 have registered with evacuation centres in other communities.

Butz says crews have installed sprinklers in two neighbourhoods to beef up fire defences.

UPDATE 10:05 a.m.

The BC Wildfire Service says conditions remain unseasonably warm and dry throughout much of the province, raising the risk of fires sparking and spreading.

It says there's potential for gusty winds to fan aggressive fire behaviour in the north later in the day, including the Fort Nelson area, where an 84 square-kilometre blaze is burning just outside the town.

The service says most spring wildfires are typically caused by human activity.

It says everyone must do their part to avoid sparking a blaze.

UPDATE 10 a.m.

A public information meeting is set to take place this afternoon for evacuees from the Fort Nelson area in northeastern B.C., as a wildfire burns just outside the town.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality says the meeting is to take place at the North Peace Arena in Fort St. John.

Fort Nelson, a community of about 4,700, has been under an evacuation order since Friday.

Mayor Rob Fraser has urged residents not to return to their homes, after the RCMP had to relocate a safety checkpoint outside the community.

Fraser says emergency crews need to focus on their work rather than looking out for residents heading back into harm's way. (edited)

ORIGINAL 9:55 a.m.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her heart goes out to Fort McMurray residents who have had to leave their homes eight years after a blaze known as The Beast devastated parts of the city.

However, Smith says the evacuation order affecting about 6,000 residents is necessary for public safety.

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen says bans on fires and off-road vehicles are in place for the area.

He says fierce winds are responsible for pushing the fire close to the city.

UPDATE 9:40 a.m.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says fires this year have already burned through more the 23,000 square kilometres.

That's already enough to place 2024 in the middle of the rankings for the total amounts burned in entire years since 2008.

A record 284,000 square kilometres of land was scorched last year.

The wildfire service says there are 128 active wildfires in the province, including 15 that are burning out of control.

UPDATE 9:25 a.m.

Several energy companies say the wildfire threatening Fort McMurray, Alta., is not posing a risk to operations.

Suncor Energy, MEG Energy and Cenovus Energy say they are monitoring their operations.

Suncor spokesman Leithan Slade says some employees and contractors are affected with the partial evacuation of Fort McMurray, and their safety is a top priority.

UPDATE 9 a.m.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo says crews worked until 3 a.m. dropping water on the fire near Fort McMurray, Alta., which has grown to 210 square kilometres in size.

It says crews are also building a containment line near the city's landfill.

The regional municipality says a small amount of rain last night is expected to have little impact on the fire.

A reception centre for evacuees has opened in Edmonton.


Thousands of people in Western Canada remain displaced from their homes as wildfires threaten their communities, triggering evacuation orders and alerts.

In British Columbia, a widening area around the northeastern community of Fort Nelson is under evacuation, with the Parker Lake wildfire burning close by and the larger Patry Creek wildfire raging to the northwest.

Both fires are listed with the B.C. Wildfire Service as "wildfires of note," with Parker Lake measuring 84 square kilometres in size and the Patry Creek fire covering a whopping 464 square kilometres.

In Alberta, a 209-square-kilometre fire has chased more than 6,600 residents of southern Fort McMurray from their homes.

In 2016, a similar wildfire destroyed much of the oilsands community and its recovery took years.

And just north of Cranberry Portage, Man., an out-of-control wildfire measuring 316 square kilometres has forced the area's roughly 500-plus locals to flee their homes.

The shifting conditions of the fires in northeastern B.C. forced the RCMP to relocate one of their safety checkpoints outside of Fort Nelson.

Mayor Rob Fraser issued a plea for residents not to attempt returning to their homes during the Mounties' absence.

He says emergency crews need to focus on fighting the fires and not watching out for people trying to head home when it is not yet safe.

For those working to defend the community from the fire, Structure Protection Branch director Keving Delgarno says crews were able to work until about midnight, not until dawn, as has been the case lately.

"The fire behaviour's settled down, and hasn't been as aggressive."

He says the forecast for the region is continuing to look favourable, which will further aid in their efforts.

While the nearby Parker Lake wildfire is the fire that triggered the evacuation of the Fort Nelson area, fire behaviour specialist Ben Boghean says the Patry Creek fire, some 25 kilometres north of the community, grew substantially earlier this week, fanned by high winds.

He notes that, currently, it does not pose the same danger, but that could rapidly change with a return of strong winds and drier conditions.

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