A massive wildfire that has forced the evacuation of all 88,000 people from the western Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray and burned down 1,600 structures has the potential to destroy much of the town, authorities said on Wednesday.
With a few neighbourhoods already in ruins, worsening fire conditions Wednesday pushed walls of flames towards thousands of more homes in the north-eastern Alberta town, in the heart of Canada’s oil sands region.
Authorities said there had been no known casualties from the blaze itself, but fatalities were reported in at least one car crash among the evacuees. Thousands bunked down in arenas, hockey rinks and oil work camps, often short of fuel and food.
A huge cloud of black smoke was visible from well over 60 km (37 miles) away from the town. Traffic on the main road headed south had thinned to a trickle, however, after major jams on Tuesday when the evacuation order was given.
Stretches of the highway had been converted into make-shift campgrounds by people in cars, trucks and recreation vehicles, who were fleeing the inferno.
Crews meanwhile had been unable to stop the fire, which has charred 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares) since it erupted on Sunday and exploded in ferocity.
A new school building in the heart of Fort McMurray had been destroyed and more than a dozen structures in residential parts of the town were on fire, according to the latest update issued by the emergency officials fighting the blaze late on Wednesday.
“It is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town,” said Scott Long, an official with Alberta’s emergency management agency.
Major oil sands facilities were not in the path of the flames, but companies’ efforts to help employees and evacuees and protect pipelines led to a decline in production.
Images from the neighborhood of Beacon Hill in the city’s southeast showed rows of charred house foundations, their upper stories burned to the ground, and blankets of white ash within. Officials said 80 percent of houses in the neighborhood, nearly 600 in total, were destroyed.
The regional government said two other neighbourhoods, Abasand and Waterways, had sustained “serious loss.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said a total of about 1,600 structures have been destroyed in Fort McMurray. “There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them and it will find them and it will want to take them,” said Chief Darby Allen of the Fort McMurray fire department.