Emergency officials battling the growing and unpredictable Alberta wildfire may get a stroke of brisk, wet luck as a cold front brings a strong chance of showers Sunday night followed by lower temperatures and more humidity next week.
But their firefighting efforts will unfold across a much larger swath of Canada as the blaze spread to an area of about 772 square miles overnight. That’s roughly half the size of Rhode Island.
The government for Wood Buffalo, the regional municipality in which Fort McMurray lies, reported a short burst of rain late Sunday morning.
If the rain continues — and there is a 70% chance of it falling Sunday night and a 40% chance of precipitation Monday — relative humidity will increase over the week, as temperatures are predicted to hover in the mid-50s through midweek.
Five hundred firefighters employing 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers have been struggling to contain the massive blaze, which has already forced at least 90,000 residents to evacuate, most of them from Fort McMurray, which is under a mandatory evacuation order, along with Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation.
“Residents of Fort McMurray should not expect to return home for an extended period of time,” the government said in a statement.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson visited with families who were forced to leave their homes on short notice. The evacuees expressed concerns about their belongings and their children’s schooling, Notley said.
“I know I left that visit more determined than ever to do our very best for the people of Fort McMurray,” Notley said. “We are working to keep people safe, then to make the city safe and to work out a plan for return, then to ensure the community functions, and then to get the community rebuilt.”
Fort Mackay, about a 45-minute drive north of Fort McMurray, is under a voluntary evacuation order. Already, 60 vulnerable residents have been moved while about 450 residents remain, Notley said.
The fire has also endangered the oil industry in the region. Shell is already in talks with the government and Red Cross about the evacuation preparations, and on Friday, Suncor and Syncrude evacuated personnel, she said.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, according to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
Dry and windy conditions have been fueling the blaze, prompting Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to describe the situation Saturday as “unpredictable and dangerous.”
Alberta is “tinder dry,” he said, expressing hope that the 70% chance of rain comes to fruition. As he spoke, plumes of smoke could be seen as far away as Iowa.
There were also concerns that the fire, which has been moving in an easterly direction, could creep into Saskatchewan, whose border is about 50 miles east of Fort McMurray.
One bit of good news: No fatalities directly related to the fire have been reported.
Fort McMurray has been devastated. Besides the fire damage to structures, the power grid has been damaged, and the water is currently undrinkable, Notley said.
Many Fort McMurray residents first evacuated north of the city to oil company camps. They were forced to move again as supplies ran low and the oil companies decided to evacuate their own employees.
Thousands of people witnessed the devastation while driving through Fort McMurray on Friday and Saturday in evacuee convoys headed to Edmonton and other cities.
“It was something like Armageddon,” said Morgan Elliott, who traveled with his fiancee, Cara Kennedy, and their baby, Abigail. “Everything was burnt, houses gone. Leaving the city, it was like a scene out of a movie. It reminded me of the TV show ‘The Walking Dead’ where you’re going on the highway, and there’s just abandoned vehicles everywhere; hundreds of cars, just abandoned vehicles.”
Vehicles headed south down Highway 63, the lone road open for people relocating to emergency shelters or the homes of friends or family, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo reported.
Many evacuees are expected eventually to wind up in Edmonton, the provincial capital some 379 kilometers (236 miles) to the south, or Calgary, where residents and officials were working to set up accommodations for the influx of temporary residents.
CNN’s Ralph Ellis, Steve Almasy, Ray Sanchez, Dan Simon, Amanda Watts, Mallory Simon, Keith Allen, Faith Karimi, Chuck Johnston, Dave Alsup, Justin Lear, Holly Yan and David Williams contributed to this report.