Fear, anxiety as thousands flee their homes in Fort McMurray due wildfire threat

Evacuees directed to Cold Lake, Edmonton for accommodation

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Thousands of Fort McMurray residents headed south to safety as a large out-of-control wildfire drew closer to their community, but many are worried they won't have a home to return to.

An evacuation order was issued Tuesday afternoon for the neighbourhoods of Beacon Hill, Abasand, Prairie Creek and Grayling Terrace, as the wildfire southwest of the community continues to grow.

Other areas in Fort McMurray remain on evacuation alert and residents need to be ready to leave on short notice.

Marina Barnes has lived in Fort McMurray for four years and evacuated from her home in Abasand Tuesday.

"I think the worst part right now is the unknown," Barnes told CBC as she and a friend evacuated to Lac La Biche in the evening.

"Not knowing if we're going to have a home to go back to."

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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo had told residents to head to an evacuation centre in Lac La Biche, but around 7 p.m., the municipality posted on social media that accommodation in Lac La Biche was full and directed evacuees to Cold Lake, about 147 kilometres to a new evacuation centre at the Agriplex.

The City of Edmonton is also accepting evacuees at a reception centre located in the Clareview Community Recreation Centre at 3804 139th Avenue.

May 15: Poor air quality - Fort McMurray, Alberta

May 15 air quality update (Source: Environment Canada and Climate Change/The Weather Network)

As of Tuesday night, the wildfire threatening the community has covered nearly 21,000 hectares as shifting winds and rising temperatures continue accelerating its growth and pushing the flames closer to the community.

All residents in the evacuation zone were ordered to leave by 4 p.m. MT.

"I could see the orange glow from my balcony, and where I live in Abasand, it's the farthest back apartment. So if the fire were to reach Abasand, my building would have been the first one to get hit," Barnes said.

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May 15: Fort McMurray, Alberta wildfire update (The Weather Network)

Updated at 8:00 a.m. (MDT), May 15, 2024. (The Weather Network)

RELATED: Evacuation order issued as wildfire threatening Fort McMurray draws closer

Moving forward from 2016

For some Fort McMurray residents, having to leave home due to the threat of wildfire is a familiar and bitter experience.

"Nothing can prepare you," Alex Mortlock said as he recalled having his home destroyed in the 2016 fire.

"Still the same anxiety, same things going through your mind, and this time, I have kids to worry about," Mortlock said, noting he was evacuating with two children under the age of six.

"My son kept asking me why we got evacuated and ... you can explain it to him, but ... They don't really understand."

CBC - Alberta evacuations - Sam Martini - May15

For some Fort McMurray residents like Alex Mortlock, evacuating is a familiar and bitter experience. (Sam Martin/CBC)

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RELATED: 8 years ago, 88,000 Albertans fled due to the Fort McMurray wildfire

Kathleen Tomie, a resident from Dickinsfield, decided to leave Tuesday even though her neighbourhood was not ordered to evacuate.

In 2016, Tomie had to evacuate while pregnant with her daughter and console a young son who was frightened by the situation.

"It was hard. I don't want to do that again," Tomie said.

Ian Seggie, who lives in Thickwood Heights north of the Athabasca River, said he'll never forget the 2016 wildfire.

"I think people are still reeling with 2016, which was almost eight years ago to the day," Seggie told CBC.

Officials say the fire threatening Fort McMurray is a different kind of beast from the 2016 wildfire that devastated the community.

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"Everything is like a carbon copy of that day, it felt like that," Seggie said.

"But what I'm noticing this time around, there's a lot of lessons that have been learned."

CBC - Fort McMurray wildfired - Submitted by Rochelle Yurko - May15

A wildfire threatening the community has now consumed nearly 21,000 hectares as shifting winds and rising temperatures continue to accelerate its growth and push the flames closer to the municipality. (Submitted by Rochelle Yurko)

Jody Butz, the regional fire chief, told Wood Buffalo council Tuesday that up to 6,600 people could be in the evacuation zone.

Crews will be better able to defend these areas with the residents gone, Butz said. Many of the neighbourhood streets now under evacuation were devastated by fire in 2016 — Abasand and Beacon Hill were among the hardest hit.

Seggie said community members need to unite and help one another, whether it is the sharing of information or resources.

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"It adds some calmness when people know they're being looked after ... we did that in 2016, and we'll do that again."

WATCH: Wildfire smoke in Red Deer, Alta.

Thumbnail image credit to 511 Alberta

This article, written by Mrinali Anchan, was originally published for CBC News on Wednesday, May 15.