Canada Sends Military Aircraft to Stop the Spread of Massive Alberta Wildfires

Canada's provinces have begun lining up to offer assistance to the massive wildfires that are ravaging Alberta's north.
May 4, 2016, 2:35pm
Fire rages outside of Fort McMurray. (Photo by Mary Anne Sexsmith-Segato/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Air Force has dispatched several CH-146 helicopters to fire-ravaged northern Alberta, the Canadian military has confirmed to VICE News, while a CC-130 Hercules strategic lift plane is already in the air to a nearby air base to help with the logistics of the response to the fires.

The military response will be formally announced at a teleconference on Wednesday afternoon, and the military says more assets may be dispatched as needed.

Meanwhile, officials issued an ominous warning for those fleeing wildfires that have overwhelmed the Albertan oil town of Fort McMurray.

"The worst of the fire is not over," Bernie Schmitte, manager of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, told a news conference late Tuesday.

"We're still faced with very high temperatures, low relative humidity and some strong winds."

The out of control wildfire has led to the largest evacuation in Albertan history, forcing out all of Fort McMurray, the hub of the nearby Canadian oilsands, and it may only get worse. The temperature will reach 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) according to local forecasts.

Time lapse from my office — Ryan Jeffries (@RyanJeffriesWFG)May 3, 2016

Overwhelming devastation in Fort McMurray — Don Scott (@DonaldKScott)May 4, 2016

Fort McMurray's fire chief Darby Allen told local media they have requested military assistance and expect the army will start sending out troops within a couple of days. Allen told local reporters south of the fires that he has 150 firefighters battling the inferno and expects 70 or 80 more to arrive in the coming days. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Wednesday morning that her government was contributing 100 firefighters to Alberta to help battle the blaze. Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia, and Quebec have all pledged support as well.

While Allen said the fires within the downtown core of Fort McMurray were extinguished as of Wednesday morning, he warned they could flare up again at any time.

A pic of what trying to leave Fort McMurray looks like right now — chester (@ccccrystal__)May 4, 2016

The surreal picture Julie Lodge, from Catalina, snapped of woman fleeing with horses near Fort Mac hospital. — Anthony Germain (@AnthonyGermain)May 4, 2016

About 17,000 resident fled to the north, and another 35,000 headed south, with around 20,000 of those expected to flood into the capital of Edmonton via an extremely packed, two-lane highway. Some of those who did go north ended up in camps set up for oil sands workers, which opened their doors to evacuees. Shell Canada promised to open a camp about 85 kilometers north of Fort McMurray to evacuees, while Fort McKay First Nation was also accepting the newly homeless.

Video from one of my — Chad Sartison (@firefighters1st)May 4, 2016

The massive fires caught the city by surprise, and have left residents scrambling to get out. Many had trouble getting gasoline as they fled the fire. One gas station reportedly exploded for unknown reasons. The Alberta government has dispatched a fuel tanker to patrol the highway and help any motorists who are out of gas.

The city remains on evacuation order and, as of Wednesday afternoon, the international airport was closed to all commercial flights.

One more video before I head to Anzac. Stay safe everyone. — Robert Murray (@NovaCanuck)May 3, 2016

The sky isn't visible in many of the images coming out of the area on social media, covered by clouds of black smoke or hidden behind gigantic flames. Cars and homes have been left in ruins, and those stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 63 have been posting photos and videos of burning buildings along the way and horses, running to escape the fire.

Fort McMurray's fire chief called it a "nasty, ugly fire," but said no serious injuries had been reported.

Alberta's Premier Rachel Notley said there had been a "fairly significant destruction of residences," with roughly 1,600 structures affected as of Wednesday morning, although she said it was "a bit premature" to discuss the cost of the damage.

Crews are now concerned about the possibility of the wind changing its direction mid-day. While Tuesday was about getting residents out, on Wednesday, the priority is putting the fire out and ensuring critical infrastructure, including a bridge that connects two sides of Fort McMurray, stays intact.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between the Alberta government and the Department of National defence, which outlined what type of assistance the military would provide — helicopters to help with rescue for anyone who's been isolated, airlift support to bring in supplies and personnel, as well as ground support for access in and out of the city if necessary.

On Wednesday morning, the official Twitter account for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo warned evacuees north of Fort McMurray: "Stay north - you're safe and we're working on making things better for you."

"It's the worst day of my career," he said. "The people here are devastated, everyone's devastated, the community is going to be devastated. This is going to go on. This is going to take us awhile to come back from. But we'll come back."

Crews are now concerned about the possibility of the wind changing its direction mid-day. While Tuesday was about getting residents out, on Wednesday, the priority is putting the fire out and ensuring critical infrastructure, including a bridge that connects two sides of Fort McMurray, stays intact.

On Wednesday morning, the official Twitter account for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo warned evacuees north of Fort McMurray: "Stay north - you're safe and we're working on making things better for you."

— Tyler Burgett (@tburgs15)May 3, 2016

Several neighborhoods have already been destroyed by the fire in Fort McMurray, which started over the weekend and become ferocious on Tuesday after humidity levels went down and temperature shifted.

In the neighborhood of Beacon Hill, 80 percent of homes had been lost.

Largest fire-related evac ever in AB, +29,000 forced to leave. You can help: — Canadian Red Cross (@redcrosscanada)May 4, 2016

Tonight I spoke with Premier Notley and offered our government's support to the people of Fort McMurray. We stand ready to help. — Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau)May 4, 2016

Thousands of Fort McMurray residents went to a camp for oilfield workers north of the city. In the midst of the chaos, two babies were born.

"Can't say that ever happened before," Blair McCalla, communications manager of the Noralta Lodge, told the CBC. The company, along with others in the area, has opened up several of its camps to people fleeing the fire.

Reception centers have been set up in Lac La Biche and Edmonton for residents evacuating south, according to the provincial government's emergency alert website.

Two Facebook pages for people offering spare rooms and beds for evacuees have been started by people in the area. On Twitter, the hashtag #ymmhelp is being used for the same purpose.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo asked hotels with space to donate beds to first responders.

Meanwhile, Alberta Transportation is escorting a fuel tanker to the highway near Fort McMurray to help stranded motorists, who may be stuck in serious congestion. All non-essential travel northbound into the city has been suspended.

This is a breaking news story, please check back for updates.

'It's gone. It's all gone': Wildfire empties Fort McMurray as flames enter city | https://t.co/Kvy06Dmkh0 | #ymm pic.twitter.com/F5a8M3LUxv

— Cullen Bird (@CullenBird)May 4, 2016