FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta, May 10 (UPI) — Firefighters continued Tuesday to fight the massive wildfire licking the northwestern Canadian oil-rich countryside, but for the city of Fort McMurray the worst may be over.
No more flames are burning in the town of 80,000 people, where the blaze started a week ago. As aggressive, hot and ravaging as the fire was, it’s astounding that firefighters have helped save 90 percent of Fort McMurray, officials said this week.
Nearly 2,500 homes and other structures were destroyed by the fire, but many were saved — including a hospital, government buildings and all schools. Monday, officials said the number of homes destroyed accounts for about 20 percent of all those in the city.
Thousands of firefighters and heavy equipment continue to trail the 750-square-mile wildfire as it reaches across the Alberta landscape and approaches Saskatchewan. Air tankers and helicopters repeat treks between the leaping flames and nearby lakes, hoping to drop enough water on the blaze to make a difference.
Some firefighters, in fact, have even watched their own houses burn — but worked tirelessly to save others.
“We have had several [firefighters] lose their homes,” Nick Waddington, president of a local firefighters union, told the CBC. “We had one member watch his house burn at the end of his driveway, and then go and put in an 18-hour shift.”
Fire chief Darby Allen spoke of a similar incident in which a member of his brigade tried, but failed, to save his own homes from spreading flames in his fire-ravaged neighborhood.
“He didn’t drop his nozzle. He moved to his neighbor’s house and continued to fight that fire,” Allen said. “And he fought that fire for a further 22 hours before he just couldn’t stand anymore.”
Tuesday, Waddington said in an interview on Canadian radio that the fact that 90 percent of the town has survived such an inferno is remarkable.
“We had an amazing response from our industrial partners. This city would have burnt to the ground if our industrial partners weren’t there,” he said. “They were the guys that were there from day one, they were the only resources we could get. They are the Fort McMurray fire department as much as we are.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley visited Fort McMurray on Monday after officials allowed the media there, as well. Residents, though, have not yet had the chance to return to their homes. Tens of thousands remain scattered in evacuation centers across Alberta.
“This city was surrounded by an ocean of fire just a few days ago,” Notley told reporters in Fort McMurray Monday. “The city has been saved.”
In an oil-sands-rich region, energy companies have been forced to dramatically reduce output over the last week due to the blaze, but officials have said oil production infrastructure in and around Fort McMurray has remained largely intact.
The province of New Brunswick, hundreds of miles east of Alberta, said this week it is sending firefighters to help and donating $75,000 to the Red Cross.
“New Brunswickers open their hearts to all of those affected by the terrible events transpiring in Fort McMurray,” Premier Brian Gallant said. “We are also collectively there to support New Brunswickers and their families that have been living in Alberta.”
Wednesday, the CBC is hosting a one-day “charity blitz” to help everyone affected by the blaze. Donations will go to the Canadian Red Cross, Food Bank and Humane Society.