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Fort McMurray fire: 1,500 vehicles packed with evacuees flee wildfire in convoy

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(CNN) — The first convoy of vehicles carrying evacuees fleeing the Fort McMurray fire rolled south early Friday under the watchful eye of Canadian police.

Helicopters hovered overhead to look out for smoke and flames along the route, while emergency fuel stations were set up along the way to keep the convoy moving.

CNN partner CTV posted photos it said were taken as the convoy drove through Fort McMurray. Flames and towering columns of smoke filled the sky.

Edmonton resident Bill Glynn, who was working in Fort McMurray when the fire broke out, was in a convoy and told the Edmonton Journal newspaper that the scene was “like a war zone.”

“There were times you came over the hill and you couldn’t see anything and just hoped the person ahead knew what they were doing,” the newspaper quoted Glynn as saying. “We had only gone two or three klicks and there was the fire right at the side of the road. It was coming towards us.”

Authorities expect to spend the next four days escorting small convoys through the fire-devastated city — the only road route south — until all 1,500 vehicles registered for the trip were clear.

Others will likely be airlifted out of the fire zone later Friday, as 8,000 were Thursday, according to authorities.

Many of the evacuees are expected eventually to wind up in Edmonton, the provincial capital some 379 kilometers (236 miles) to the south, or Calgary, where residents and officials were working to set up accommodations for the influx of temporary residents.

At least 88,000 people have been forced to flee the enormous fire, which as of Friday had burned at least 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) and destroyed more than 1,600 homes in a region famed for its massive oil reserves — the third-largest in the world.

The northeastern Alberta city isn’t the only area on fire. At least 49 wildfires are burning in Alberta, the provincial government said.

Late Thursday, the fire chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Darby Allen, posted an update to Twitter saying conditions had calmed somewhat inside Fort McMurray, but that the battle still raged.

“The beast is still up. it’s surrounded the city, and we’re here doing our very best for you,” he said.

When residents will be able to go home is much in doubt.

“It will not be a matter of days,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said. “The damage is extensive.”

Notley said she knows people are scared and worried about what they will find when the fires are out and they can go back.

“Trust us that we have your back, that we will be there for you. And that we will support you along the way,” she said at an evening news conference.

Some good news

The cause of the fire remains unclear, but a dangerous mix of extreme temperatures and bone-dry conditions have fueled the inferno.

Chad Morrison, a senior manager for wildfire prevention with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the fire didn’t move as much Thursday as it did the day before.

Strong winds didn’t help, but lower temperatures — after two days of record heat — and lower humidity did.

Friday’s forecast included no rain, but winds were not expected to be as strong.

“We still have a few warm, hot burning dry days in front of us for sure. Firefighters will continue to be challenged,” Morrison said. “So we’re not out of the woods yet, and we still have a long ways to go.”

Quick escapes

Cameron Spring had 30 minutes to pack up a lifetime of memories from the house he grew up in.

The fire, which started Sunday, was racing toward his home, destroying everything in its path.

“We had next to no warning,” the 27-year-old said. “I was able to grab some clothes, toiletries, a hard drive and laptop, passport and my Brazilian jiujitsu belt.”

Spring escaped just in time. His neighborhood — more than 100 homes — burned to the ground.

“Absolutely everything was leveled,” he said. The only things left standing: burnt trees, a light post and a few chimneys.

But Spring doesn’t have time to think about losing his home. He’s also the safety and operations director at Phoenix Heli-Flight, which was busy evacuating hospital patients and helping firefighters by dropping water from the sky.

“It’s not difficult at all to keep working and not think of it,” he said. “Just knowing that everything we lost is replaceable is comforting.”

One of those rescued was Peter Fortna, who with his cat, Sami, and his roommate, had fled about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) down the road to a friend’s house.

A Phoenix pilot thought the area was in danger, so he set his helicopter down in a field when he saw Fortna and others nearby.

The pilot told them it was time to move to safety again and offered to take them to the airport, which was about a minute away by air. There, Fortna rented a car and drove 435 kilometers (270 miles) to Edmonton.

“I never feared for my life, but it was close enough,” Fortna said of his ordeal.

Shifting winds

Not everyone left in a timely manner, Sgt. Jack Poitras, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, told reporters Thursday.

“We still have some people who have been hanging around,” he said.

Officers are going into accessible areas and looking for signs of people, he said.

Figuring out where the fire is headed is difficult, he said, because the strong winds kept shifting.

“It’s very dangerous because it keeps going back and forth,” he said.

The flames also prevented people north of the city from being able to travel south.

“It’s not safe to let them through,” Poitras said.

1,600 structures destroyed

On the run again

Many who heeded the evacuation orders had to flee a second time as the unpredictable fire headed toward an emergency shelter in Anzac.

Donna Guillamot was one of tens of thousands evacuated from the Fort McMurray area to Anzac this week.

“I thought it was safe here, so I guess we’ll go to Edmonton,” Guillamot told CBC News. “Now you’re sitting here and all you see is red flames. It’s pretty scary.”

The kindness of strangers

Phoenix Heli-Flight’s Spring said he’s amazed by the generosity of strangers from all over Alberta province.

The wildfire destroyed gas stations, leaving evacuees stranded. So fellow Canadians drove up a clogged highway, giving away gas, food and water.

“That’s the most emotional part of it — everyone else coming to help you,” he said. “It gives you hope … not everything’s going to be bad.”

A punk band from Pittsburgh that was supposed to play Thursday night in Fort McMurray was instead to do a benefit show in Edmonton.

Anti Flag asked people to chip in at least $5 each for the all-ages show.

And an apartment leasing company, Mainstreet Equity, is offering units for displaced families to live in rent-free for at least three months.