The Damage Done by Canada's Massive Wildfire So Far

The fire, now over three times the size of Toronto, is still considered "out of control" by emergency officials.
May 9, 2016, 6:35pm

There's not much left of what was once a thriving oil city. All photos via Dan Olson for VICE News

The wildfire that has left many parts of Alberta's oil capital of Fort McMurray in ashes remains out of control and is now four times the size it was a week ago. At an estimated 161,000 hectares [about 600 square miles], the fire is now threatening to cross over the Saskatchewan border. Some 80,000 people have been displaced, and fire crews are working around the clock to stop the spread of the fire. Despite exhaustive efforts, officials are worried that, short of a drastic change in weather, the fire will continue to grow unhindered.

Here's what you need to know.

Although exact numbers aren't yet clear, the most recent estimates of structural damage in Fort McMurray suggest that around 1,600 buildings have been destroyed by the fire. Pictures show that entire neighborhoods have been razed, although the downtown, including the city's hospital, has mostly been spared. Insurance costs alone are estimated to be about $9 billion [$7 billion USD]. The city, as of now, is completely uninhabitable—there is no power, drinking water, or services. It is essentially a ghost town.

Premier Rachel Notley, who held an emotional press conference over the weekend where she committed to fighting the fire and restoring stability to displaced residents, will be visiting the city Monday with a crew of journalists and a handful of government officials to assess the damage from the ground level.

Since it began on May 2, the fire has been largely uncontrollable. Firefighters have had a tough time fighting the flames with water and retardant bombs—the typical two-punch solution used for putting out wildfires. According to a report by VICE News this weekend, Russia has offered to send water bombers to Canada to assist in controlling the fire, although Canadian officials say they're still reviewing the idea.

Due to the size and scope of the fire (with temperatures getting so high that many air vehicles cannot safely pass over it), officials are waiting on a change in weather to either provide a break in dry air big enough for the flames to be extinguished, or for a straight-up miracle in the form of a rainstorm. Neither have come yet, but there's hope the weather is beginning to settle slightly with cooler temperatures seen over the weekend.

Aside from the 80,000 in the city and surrounding areas who were forced to evacuate, there are thousands more who were caught on nearby highways or on vacation when the evacuation orders began. Now, officials have a two-pronged approach to the situation: resettle those who got out, and try to convince those who haven't to leave as soon as possible.

Inspector Gibson Glavin of the Alberta RCMP told VICE that over the last few days the RCMP have found numerous cases of people still within the evacuation zone—either because they couldn't leave or didn't want to. Glavin said that authorities have offered help to all those who willingly left, and has made note of those who stayed in case of future emergency.

Aside from the charitable donations that have poured in from across Canada, there have been a number of businesses making adjustments to their pricing and practices thanks to the fire. Last week, residents began to report that those outside the evacuation zone had begun listing their homes on AirBnB for $0 to anyone who could prove he or she was a resident of the now fire-damaged area. In terms of less-than-essential-services, an Edmonton strip club also offered free lap dances to escapees, though it does plan to hold a "strip-a-thon" to raise money for relief and rebuilding efforts.

But not everyone is getting good press: After a post accusing Air Canada of price-gouging flights from Fort McMurray to the Maritimes blew up online, dozens of residents expressed their anger with the airline for taking advantage of a tragic situation. The airline originally defended its pricing as "competitive," but later apologized and agreed to refund those who escaped the fire by air.

Crude oil production has also dropped dramatically due to the fire shutting down a number of high-profit operations near the evacuation zone. Economists are now predicting much lower economic growth for the province, which was already hard hit following a prolonged oil slump.

The Human Cost
Although no deaths have been linked directly to the fire, a head-on collision between a vehicle and a truck on one of the escape routes last week resulted in the death of two people. According to the RCMP, the evacuation routes are now clear and are not experiencing the level of traffic buildup that was seen shortly after the fire. No injuries have been reported either.

There has also been a concerted effort by Albertans to rescue the abandoned and lost pets from Fort McMurray. Social media groups dedicated to the rescue of furry creatures forgotten in the evacuation zone have spawned hundreds of thank you posts from owners who got their pets back, despite calls from authorities to leave their pets behind if it meant risking their lives.

Glavin told VICE that reports of arson that popped up on social media over the weekend were not true to his knowledge, but that the RCMP has encountered a handful of people looting in the area. Glavin said that only one arrest was made. Regardless, the RCMP is keeping a tight presence in the area to prevent similar incidents from happening.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.