Officials fear the massive fire could double in size by the end of Saturday as they continue to evacuate residents. Fire has engulfed tens of thousands of hectares and destroyed thousands of structures.
Convoys evacuating residents from the region continued on Saturday, and some residents were able to see the devastation as they passed through from the north of the city of Fort McMurray. More than 10,000 people were evacuated Friday and a further 4,000 were expected to be taken to safety on Saturday.
More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada' oil sands, where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings.
Fanned by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 75 square kilometers (29 square miles) Tuesday to 100 square kilometers on Wednesday. By Thursday it was almost nine times that - at 850 square kilometers: an area roughly the size of Calgary, Alberta's largest city.
Shutting down oil operations
Syncrude, a major oil sands mining company, has become the latest to shut down operations. The company said in a statement that while there was no imminent threat from fire, smoke had reached its Mildred Lake site. All personnel out were expected to leave over the weekend. Evacuation began early Saturday.
"It was scary," evacuee Sarah Babstock told the Edmonton Journal newspaper. "We came through with clothes over our mouths so we could breathe."
Fort McMurray - population 100,000 - has been completely evacuated since the authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order shortly before midnight Tuesday.
Wind-whipped flames roaring through heavy timber and brush parched by a spring heat wave engulfed nearly more than 101,000 hectares (250,000 acres) in western Canada.
The government has declared a state of emergency in Alberta, which is a province the size of France and home to the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Greg Pardy, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said that as much as 1 million barrels a day of oil may be offline, based on oil company announcements. That's just over a third of Canada's total oil sands output.
Firefighting efforts continue
Smoke from the fire is blanketing parts of the neighboring province of Saskatchewan where Environment Canada has issued special air quality warnings
More than 1,100 firefighters are battling 49 separate blazes across the province - seven of them classified as out of control.
Alberta fire department senior manager Chad Morrison said the effort to contain the fires would likely take weeks.
"Right now, we do really need some rain, no question about it," Morrison said. "And even once we get rain, there's still going to be a lot of fire out there."
"There's a high potential that the fire could double in size by the end of tomorrow," he said.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said damage to Fort McMurray was extensive.
"The city of Fort McMurray is not safe to return to, and this will be true for a significant period of time," she said Friday. Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would secure and protect what was left of the town, she added.
The city's downtown remains largely intact and firefighters are working to save as many residential areas as possible.
"We've been able to hold the line for the most part in those residential areas," Notley said.
Unseasonably hot temperatures combined with dry conditions have transformed the boreal forest in much of Alberta into a tinder box. The cause of the fires hasn't been determined, but they started in a remote forested area and could have been ignited by lightning.
Estimates of insurance losses could exceed $7 billion (6.1 billion euros).
jar/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters)