CTV News, May 4, 2016

More than 1,600 homes and buildings have been destroyed by raging wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta., and officials say they expect the fires to flare up again later this afternoon.

Temperatures in the northern Alberta town are expected to hit an unseasonably hot 30 degrees Celsius Wednesday afternoon, with no precipitation in the forecast.

When the winds pick up this afternoon, Chad Morrison, a senior manager with Alberta Wildfire Prevention & Enforcement says the fire will likely become unpredictable and difficult to control.

“We expect it to be a worse fire day than yesterday, with the big issue being the winds gusting at 20 km/h. With hot, dry conditions, firefighters will continue to be challenged all day,” he told reporters Wednesday.

“We expect fire behaviour to be similar to yesterday, to pick up around 1 p.m. (MT) and challenge firefighters well into the evening.”

After destroying a swath of houses in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of the city, the fire has now jumped the Athabasca River and is threatening neighbourhoods on the other side, said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

“It’s now started to make its way to the edges of Thickwood and Timberlea. It is likely the case that it will move into those communities should the wind do what we expect it to do this afternoon,” she said.

She said officials are hopeful that the addition of firefighters and equipment from around the province will be able to make some progress in bringing the fire under control.

Dozens of homes destroyed

On Tuesday, multiple homes and businesses were destroyed when the winds suddenly shifted in the afternoon and pushed the flames into the southwest of the city.

Officials say that 80 per cent of the homes in Beacon Hill were destroyed, but CTV Edmonton’s Breanna Karstens-Smith has toured the neighbourhood and says there is almost nothing left

“We have yet to come across the 20 per cent that has not been lost. It is completely levelled,” she said.

“It’s just blocks and blocks of soot, basically.”

There have also “serious losses” in Waterways and Abasand and two other neraby neighbourhoods.

Several fire crews have arrived from Edmonton and elsewhere across the province, and CTV Edmonton’s Bill Fortier said they are being asked to battle blazes they are not used to fighting.

“This is one of those rare cases when municipal, urban firefighters are being called in to fight a wildfire. Usually, that’s a completely different firefighter: They’re in the trees, they’re aerial, they’re fighting the fire in the brush – something that urban firefighters don’t have much experience doing,” Fortier said. “But now, this is also an effort to save a city.”

The city has requested help from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Air Force, however that assistance isn’t expected for at least two days.

Thousands stream out

Despite the destruction, the one bit of good news is that there have been no reports of deaths or injuries. That had been a major concern Tuesday when the fire began to bear down on the city, leaving residents with less than an hour’s notice to flee.

Tar Sands Ft McMurray fire ashes

What is left of the community of Beacon Hill, Alta., is seen after wildfires devastated the area on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Chad Kruger / CTV News)

More than 80,000 people have already fled, heading to the small towns and hamlets south and north of the city. Around 10,000 have gone north to stay in work camps near the oilsands.

Notley added that the bottlenecks of traffic that formed Tuesday evening on Highway 63 — the main road heading south – have since thinned out.

Still, many evacuees were forced to abandon or camp out beside their vehicles when they ran out of gas. RCMP officers have spent the rmoning brining these drivers cans of gasoline to give them enough fuel to get to the next gas station

Fortier says Wandering River, a hamlet of 100 or so residents located south of the city, is overwhelmed by the new arrivals looking for gas or food.

The town has only two gas stations and two fast food outlets; all of them ran out of food at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night.

“And this is just one small part of the stream of people just trying to get out of Fort McMurray,” he said.

Several nearby towns have opened up evacuation centres trying to take in as many of the stranded as possible. Many residents are also offering up their homes, posting notices that they have space to share on a newly created Facebook group.

Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen and the director of emergency management called the blaze, which has grown from one to 7,500 hectares in just a matter of days, “a nasty, dirty fire.”

He told a news briefing Wednesday that one good bit of news is that rain is forecast to arrive Sunday followed by a cold front.

“The bad news,” Allen said, “is with that typically comes lightning and that’s not what we really want in this situation.”