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In Alberta’s heartland, wildfire forces thousands to flee

Since Sunday, a wildfire burning in the heart of Canada’s oil country has forced nearly 100,000 residents to flee their homes for safety, creating the largest mass evacuation in Alberta’s history. Friday saw evacuees being ferried from the fire’s path via airlift and land convoy as the blaze spread across more than 300 square miles -- five times its original size. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Evacuees from an enormous wildfire moved to safety today in Alberta, Canada. They were ferried out by an airlift and a land convoy from a large section of the province, the heart of the country's oil industry.

    Hari Sreenivasan reports.

    (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    They rolled down a deserted highway about 50 vehicles at a time, taking evacuees south to safety.

    Over the next four days, thousands will convoy from north of Fort McMurray, where they've been stranded, toward Edmonton. They're driving through a fire zone that's roughly ten times the size of Manhattan.

    Chad Morrison is Alberta's manager of wildfire prevention.

    CHAD MORRISON, Manager of Wildfire Prevention, Alberta: No firebreak here would have stopped this fire, because this fire is jumping kilometers at a time. We're seeing fire spreads where, you know, it's creating its own lightning fires out of this fire. This is an extreme, rare, rare fire event and that's something that's historic for us.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The big blaze has scorched some 1,600 homes and buildings, burning entire suburbs, but, Alberta premier Rachel Notley says the Fort McMurray city center has survived, so far.

  • RACHEL NOTLEY, Premier, Alberta:

    As of this morning, the downtown is largely intact. The hospital is still standing. And municipal buildings and the airport also remain intact. Firefighters have also been working to save as much of the residential areas as possible.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    More than 1,100 firefighters are on the fire lines, backed by 145 helicopters and 22 air tankers. But, there's only so much they can do.

    The fire first broke out Sunday, and by Tuesday, towering walls of flames closed in on the city, with a blanket of thick smoke choking the sky.

    Some 88,000 residents fled for their lives, many of them to evacuation centers to the south.

    Evan Dyer of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation has been reporting from the scene.

  • EVAN DYER, CBC:

    People have talked about escaping through 100 foot flames on both sides of the road. I mean, we have seen dash cam footage that we shot of people fleeing this fire where you find it hard to believe cars can even make it through this inferno. There was fire hopping both sides of Highway 63, which is the only road of out Fort McMurray.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The city sits in the heart of Canada's oil sands region, and the flames have shut down a number of facilities, pushing up global oil prices.

    Meanwhile, the fire is still burning out of control, fueled by low humidity and high winds.CHAD MORRISON: Right now, we really do need some rain. There's no question about it. And then even once we get rain, there's still going to be a lot of fire out there and a lot of work. We'll be here for weeks and weeks to put that fire out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The CBC's Evan Dyer says that means there's no timetable for when the evacuees will finally be able to return home.

  • EVAN DYER:

    Some know for a fact that their homes have been destroyed. Others are still living with the uncertainty of not knowing, some know their homes are safe, but perhaps are in the path of fire.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But, Melissa Blake, the mayor of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, says they'll make it.

  • MAYOR MELISSA BLAKE, Wood Buffalo:

    We are a strong and resilient community. And friends and families and people who are worried about our folks, I need to assure you, everybody has been out safe and sound. We've got more that we're moving and we will get them out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    An investigation is underway to determine how the fire started in the first place.

    For the PBS "NewsHour", I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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