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'Most of the city is evacuating': Gridlock on Alberta highway after evacuation order in Fort McMurray

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Four Fort McMurray neighbourhoods were ordered to evacuate on Tuesday as a wildfire crept closer to the city.

Alberta Emergency Alert issued the order for Beacon Hill, Abasand, Prairie Creek and Grayling Terrace just after 2 p.m.

All residents were asked to leave by 4 p.m. and go to the reception centre in Lac La Biche County.

All evacuees should register online, or call 310-4455 to register over the phone.

As of 8 p.m., the fire was nearly 21,000 hectares, burning 7.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill and six kilometres from the intersection of Highways 63 and 881.

Northbound Highway 63 between Highway 881 and Saprae Creek Trail was closed from 4:30 p.m. until almost midnight to allow for preventative firefighting work.

Neighbourhoods on alert

The following areas were on evacuation alert: Fort McMurray, Saprae Creek, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation #468, Anzac and Rickards Landing Industrial Park.

"The reason why it's so important to clear [the neighbourhoods] out is so that we can mobilize our fire resources to fight this fire and defend these neighbourhoods," Jody Butz, director of emergency management for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said. "We are confident that we have the resources to defend these areas, but we need people out of harm's way."

Butz urged residents in other parts of the city not to leave the community until residents under the evacuation order had a chance to clear the area.

"It's important that we approach this in a safe, orderly and respectful manner."

Images from 511 Alberta on Tuesday afternoon showed bumper-to-bumper traffic on southbound Highway 63 heading out of the city.

Fire status 

In an update on Tuesday afternoon, officials said the fire was out of control and had continued to move toward the city on Monday and Tuesday.

Wildfire smoke over over Fort McMurray on May 14, 2024 as residents leave the city after an evacuation order was issued. (Credit: Zoran Knezic)

"We're seeing extreme fire behaviour. Smoke columns are developing and the skies are covered in smoke. Firefighters have been pulled from the fire line for safety reasons," Josee St-Onge of Alberta Wildfire told reporters. "We continue to work on this wildfire with aerial support helicopters and air tankers are dropping water and retardant on the active edges of the fire."

St-Onge said wind conditions were not favourable and officials expected the fire to continue moving toward the city until the winds shift.

Officials also acknowledged the trauma many residents are likely experiencing as a result of the fire in 2016 that destroyed thousands of homes.

"I want to recognize the anxiety that this brings, certainly to those residents that were here in 2016 and to those where this is their first experience and have heard the stories," Butz said.

"It's very important for me to note that this fire activity is very different than the 2016 Horse River wildfire. We have an abundance of resources. And we are well positioned to respond to this situation."

'We're all together in this' 

Fort McMurray's public and Catholic school divisions closed for the remainder of the week because of the fire situation.

Both Cold Lake and Edmonton are hosting evacuees. Cold Lake's evacuation centre is located at the Agriplex at 4608 38 Ave. Edmonton is taking people in at the Clareview Community Recreation Centre, located at 3804 139 Ave.

The reception centre will provide food, clothing, health care and pet day care. The Red Cross will be there to help with hotel accomodations.

“We know that Fort McMurray has experienced the devastation of wildfire before. This is a challenging time as some residents evacuate and others remain on alert,” said Interim City Manager Eddie Robar. “We appreciate the physical, mental and emotional toll this is taking. Please know that the City of Edmonton’s doors are open, and a safe space and support is waiting for you.” 

Some residents who spoke to CTV News Edmonton said they weren't taking any chances.

James Cardinal was preparing to leave the Timberlea area, northwest and across the river from the neighbourhoods under the evacuation order, on Tuesday afternoon.

"I believe most of the city is evacuating, especially since what's happened before with the 2016 fires. Everybody doesn't want to take the chance again," he told CTV News Edmonton.

"I was at work there. And we just got the order to evacuate or whatever so we're just getting ready right now."

Cardinal says he travels regularly for work, so his bags were already packed. While he's experienced evacuation orders before, he says it never gets easier: "It's pretty scary."

"The beeping on your phone and then the feeling that comes with it to know that you have to leave your house and just get away from whatever fire it might be."

Wildfire smoke over Fort McMurray, Alta. on May 14, 2024. (Credit: James Cardinal Jr.)

Farid Andar lives in Beacon Hill and owns the Beacon Hill Food Store.

He said he's worried about losing his business.

"It's actually very scary," he said.

"After the fire, I built the business. I worked with it with the heart to make this place running."

He had the following message for his Fort McMurray neighbours: "Don't panic, hopefully everything is going to be OK. Just try to think positive as much as you can."

He added, "We're not alone. We're all together in this."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Matt Woodman and David Ewasuk

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