• An estimated 1,500 vehicles have begun the trek south down the reopened Highway 63 and through fire-devastated Fort McMurray
• If Fort McMurray were the face of a clock, flames surrounded it from the numbers four to 11
• The number of structures destroyed by the fire stands at 1,600, but that figure will surely grow
• Temporary Foreign Workers in the region, who often have no support network and are now without a Canadian address, are facing some grim options
FORT MCMURRAY, Alta.—A massive convoy is now underway to move evacuees stranded at oilfield camps north of Fort McMurray, Alta., through the fire-ravaged community to safe areas south of the oilsands capital.
The RCMP and military are overseeing the procession of an estimated 1,500 vehicles, which began around 6 a.m. Friday, four days after a mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray that was triggered by a nearby wildfire.
Sgt. John Spaans, an RCMP spokesman, said 50 vehicles at a time are being allowed to go through Fort McMurray on Highway 63.
Spaans said the RCMP will be marshalling the movement with cars at the front and rear, with police monitoring progress overhead in military helicopters.
All intersections along the convoy route have been blocked off to ensure no one goes astray. Police said no one will be allowed to stop.
It’s hoped that all the vehicles can get out of the area Friday, if the weather, fire and road conditions co-operate, Spaans said.
Evacuees have been instructed to continue on to the Edmonton area, more than 400 kilometres south.
Crews fighting to save Fort McMurray from rampaging flames water bombed the city May 5 to try to keep away a wildfire so intense it has spawned its own weather.
“It was creating its own high winds yesterday and even lightning was coming from the smoke clouds it created,” Chad Morrison of Alberta Forestry told a briefing in Edmonton on Thursday.
He said the fire continued to grow, but at a slower rate than before, and the spread was happening in forested areas away from the community.
Officials could not update the number of structures that have burned— the toll currently stands at 1,600.
There were 22 water bombers at work and more were coming in, including four from Quebec.
Firefighters continued to fight the blaze near the evacuated community of Anzac, where the flames were getting closer to buildings.
Premier Rachel Notley told a news conference that officials cannot speculate on when it might be safe for residents to return to the city except that “it will not be a matter of days.”
She said even when the fire situation is brought under control, officials will need time to assess buildings and infrastructure so that people can be brought back safely.
The fire, which had been menacing the oilsands capital since the weekend, rode a rapid shift in winds to cut through the city on an east-west axis. It divided the main road and sent 80,000 residents fleeing in opposite directions under a mandatory evacuation order.
Aided by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 75 square kilometres Tuesday to 850 square kilometres on May 6, roughly equivalent to the size of Calgary. If Fort McMurray were the face of a clock, flames surrounded it from the numbers four to 11.
Temporary Foreign Workers displaced, face great uncertainty
Advocacy groups say temporary foreign workers displaced by the raging wildfire engulfing Fort McMurray are at even greater risk than the rest of those who were forced to flee the northern Alberta city.
They say many of them could face an immediate accommodation crisis, since they often lack friends or family in the area to put them up.
A more pressing concern, however, is whether or not they will be allowed to stay in Canada once the blaze is extinguished.
Advocates say those who obtain a temporary foreign worker permit are tied to a single employer whose name is listed on the document, and if that employer no longer has work to offer, the migrants will have no choice but to leave the country.
They’re calling on the federal government to make allowances for those workers under the circumstances.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said they are closely monitoring the situation in Fort McMurray and “assessing whether and when special measures will be necessary to address the needs of Canadian citizens, permanent residents and temporary residents in the region.”
The Fort McMurray area has been a popular destination for temporary workers for the past several years, according to the Coalition for Migrant Workers Rights Canada.
The group’s Alberta spokesman, Marco Luciano, said temporary workers don’t usually get jobs in the oil fields around Fort McMurray, but they are often employed in the various lodges and restaurants the oilpatch workers frequent, as well as providing childcare for local families.
Already 18 people have made it to Edmonton, and Luciano said their plight is grim.
“They evacuated only with their working uniform on,” he said. “They had no time to pick up anything from their homes, and they came directly to Edmonton yesterday … They don’t know what to do.”
The displacement is a new and serious obstacle for migrants who must already stumble through the rocky terrain of the country’s foreign worker program.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the immigration system is bogged down in bureaucracy, adding even the national organization she leads struggles to navigate it at times.
Workers are already burdened with the knowledge that their temporary work permits may no longer be valid if the employer that hired them no longer has work to offer in the aftermath of the fire, she said.
Luciano said the loss of a stable Canadian address also leaves the government without the means of communicating with workers who may be in the midst of seeking permanent residency in the country, a complication he said could scuttle some applications.
Luciano said he hopes the government will allow for some flexibility under the circumstances and show some leeway to those who may find themselves without work through no fault of their own.
This video shows the exodus from Beacon Hill, where 70 per cent of homes are said to have been destroyed: