'Catastrophic wildfires' force thousands to flee in Canada

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Montreal, May 4: The Canadian city of Fort McMurray remained under threat from catastrophic wildfires today, authorities warned, after more than 80,000 residents were forced to flee the raging inferno sweeping through Alberta's oil sands region.

No casualties have been reported from the monster blaze, which lashed at residences and motor home parks, causing traffic chaos as people scrambled to safety. But authorities warned that the next 24 hours would be critical. "This fire is absolutely devastating," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Canada

"It's a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine." Alberta emergency services announced shortly before midnight Tuesday that all of Fort McMurray, a city of about 100,000, was under a mandatory evacuation order.

They said earlier that the northern edge of the inferno was "growing rapidly." Footage from the area overnight showed trees ablaze near highways crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic, while black smoke billowed as the flames ate away at buildings. Mayor Melissa Blake said predictions of what would happen not only came true but were even worse than imagined.

"This is a very explosive situation," warned Bernie Schmitte of Alberta's agriculture and forestry ministry. "These are catastrophic wildfires." The fire has destroyed some 2,000 residences in the city's most outlying districts and ravaged 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres), he said.

More than 80,000 have fled the city, located 400 kilometers north (250 miles) of the provincial capital Edmonton, according to Scott Long of Alberta's emergency management agency, with the area around the airport the only one not under an evacuation order.

Warning that the next 24 hours were critical, Schmitte launched an urgent appeal to the population as firefighters noted that winds were fanning the flames in various parts of the city.

"We are going to ask you to stay where you are so that we can utilize all roads," he said. Nine air tankers, a dozen helicopters and some 250 firefighters were battling the flames, and the military was put on alert. "Obviously, Fort McMurray being evacuated has been extremely difficult, not just for the province and officials, but for the folks who live there," Trudeau said. 

AFP

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