The Canadian province of Alberta was under a full state of emergency Wednesday as a catastrophic wildfire continued to devour neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, where 80,000 residents were safely evacuated, officials said.
By Wednesday afternoon, the fire had scorched about 18,500 acres, said Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. By mid-evening, it's expected to hit more than 24,700 acres — just about the size of the island of Manhattan, Long told reporters.
Authorities earlier had cited higher numbers in both cases — 88,000 people evacuated amid a fire of about 25,000 acres. The reports were revised as better information became available, they said.
Still, "this is a nasty, dirty fire," Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen said, warning that while some areas of the city hadn't been burned, "this fire will look for them, it will find them, and it will want to take them."
Long said downtown Fort McMurray "is being held through some Herculean efforts by the firefighters," but he agreed that the situation is "unstable."
Bernie Schmitte, wildfire manager for the Fort McMurray Wildfire Management Area, said there was still danger from "very high temperatures, low relative humidities and some strong winds." The high temperature at 3 p.m. (5 p.m. ET) was 83, a record for May 4, following a record high of 90 on Tuesday.
Danielle Larivee, Alberta's minister of municipal affairs, said the provincial cabinet declared a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon to centralize decision-making and allocation of resources. One of the first decisions was to allocate emergency funding of $2 million (US$1.55 million) to the Red Cross to support evacuees directly, she said.
While some evacuees complained on social media about the limited notice they'd been given, authorities pointed out that not a single casualty had yet been attributed directly to the fire or to the evacuation. As of Wednesday afternoon, there wasn't even anybody unaccounted for, Long said, citing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
There were unspecified casualties in a vehicle accident, Long said, but it hadn't been determined whether the accident was related.
Some residents had just a half-hour to pick up their belongings and leave in what Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called the biggest evacuation in the history of the province, one that involved tens of thousands of people at the same that 1,600 structures were being destroyed.
More than 250 firefighters, helicopters and air tankers remained in the area a day after long lines of cars filled highways to get out of town. Burning debris could be seen falling onto the roads as walls of smoke and fire filled the distance. A boil water advisory was issued for the entire region.
Smoke from the fire was easily visible from space from the Landsat 8 satellite.
A cause of the wildfire hasn't yet been determined, but unseasonably hot temperatures, combined with dry conditions, have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The wildfire threat ranged from very high to extreme in different areas.
Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake called the fire a "multi-headed monster."
She asked residents to "stay strong, stay safe — be the brave people I know that you are."
Firefighters, meanwhile, were working to protect critical infrastructure, including the only bridge across the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only major route to the city in or out.
While the full extent of the damage isn't yet known, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the fire "absolutely devastating" and said there's a loss on a scale that's hard to imagine.
He encouraged Canadians to support friends and donate to the Red Cross.
"We will be there for them," Trudeau said, adding that military aircraft were being mobilized to help fight the blaze.
While saying he's not aware of any threat to nearby oil facilities, Allen, the local fire chief, called the blaze a "moving animal."
The Alberta oil sands are the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia's and Venezuela's. Most oil sands projects are well north of the community, while the worst of the flames were on the city's south side.