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'It was panic, chaos': Hundreds of northern Alberta residents flee growing wildfire

Hundreds of people have fled the Fort Chipewyan, Alta., area due to a wildfire growing nearby.

The wildfire, believed to have been caused by lightning, grew from 300 hectares on Sunday to 8,600 by Wednesday afternoon.

According to Alberta Wildfire, the nearest boundary was 10 kilometres from Fort Chipewyan as of 3 p.m. Wednesday.

"The majority of the growth is to the northeast, away from the community. Winds today are continuing to push the fire in that direction," said Josee St-Onge, Alberta Wildfire information officer.

An evacuation alert for Fort Chipewyan – including the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation – was upgraded to an order Tuesday evening. Fort Chipewyan has a population of a little less than 1,000.

"Things have been quite chaotic," Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam told CTV News Edmonton.

"We managed to get 800 people out of the community in the last two days."

Fort Chipewyan is only accessible by plane or boat. As flights geared up Wednesday morning, officials said some residents may also be removed via the Athabasca River.

The last flight was scheduled to leave the community at 4 p.m. Residents were asked to go to the Archie Simpson Arena to register and get help to leave.

"We're taking care of our people here in the community and we'll continue to take care of them even when they're out of the community," Adam said.

Cheyenne Hall left on a five-hour boat ride to Fort McKay with her two young children and pets.

"It was panic, chaos. I was crying," she said of having to leave her community.

"Really emotional and overwhelmed just seeing all the videos and pictures of Fort Chip, so we're just going to take it day by day and hopefully everything is OK back home and we're able to return soon."

As of Wednesday morning, about 420 of Mikisew's 585 members had left.

Evacuees will go to either Fort McMurray or Fort McKay.

Helicopters and air tankers have been assisting firefighters, and a Canadian Armed Forces aircraft helped with evacuations.

Across the province, 66 wildfires were burning Wednesday afternoon, 18 of which were out of control.

"Fire danger continues to be very high to extreme in various parts of the province, particularly in the northern region," said Alberta Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Bre Hutchinson.

Around 4,400 Albertans are away from their homes due to wildfires.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nicole Lampa and Marek Tkach 

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