Wildfire in Alberta's energy heartland forces thousands to flee

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Massive Wildfire Causes Evacuations in Alberta, Canada

CALGARY, Alberta, May 3 (Reuters) - Alberta is racing to evacuate thousands of people as an uncontrolled wildfire burns near Fort McMurray, in the heart of Canada's oil sands region, forcing residents to flee north to safety on Tuesday.

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Alberta appealed for help from other provinces and Ottawa to help fight the fire and airlift people from the city. Local authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for all of Fort McMurray, which affects the city's 80,000 residents.

The 2,650-hectare (6,540-acre) fire, which was discovered on May 1, has closed off the main southern exit from the city, prompting residents to head north towards the oil sands camps.

"This is the biggest evacuation we have seen in the history of the province in terms of fire," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said at a news conference.

See photos of the blaze:

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Alberta, Canada Wildfire -- Fort McMurray
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Wildfire in Alberta's energy heartland forces thousands to flee
The wildfires glow underneath The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Two RCMP police officers wear gas masks in the smoke from the wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
People wait at a roadblock as smoke rises from wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from the wildfire burning near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, in this image from British astronaut Tim Peake aboard the International Space Station May 6, 2016. REUTERS/European Space Agency/Tim Peake via social media/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
A massive wildfire, which caused a mandatory evacuation, rages south of Fort McMurray near Anzac, Alberta, Canada May 4, 2016. . Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A flock of birds fly as smoke billows from the Fort McMurray wildfires in Kinosis, Alberta, Canada, May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
A Canadian Joint Operations Command aerial photo shows wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this image posted on twitter May 5, 2016. Courtesy CF Operations/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 08: Smoke fills the air as a police officer stands guard at a roadblock along Highway 63 leading into Fort McMurray on May 8, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 07: Smoke from wildfires drifts across the night sky on May 7, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A wildfire burns on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Saturday, May 7, 2016. Wildfires raging through Alberta have spread to the main oil-sands facilities north of Fort McMurray, knocking out an estimated 1 million barrels of production from Canada's energy hub. Fire officials say the out-of-control inferno may keep burning for months without significant rainfall. Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A huge plume of smoke from wildfires burning rises over Fort McMurray in this aerial photograph taken in Alberta, Canada, on Friday, May 6, 2016. The wildfires ravaging Canada's oil hub in northern Alberta have rapidly spread to an area bigger than New York city, prompting the air lift of more than 8,000 evacuees as firefighters seek to salvage critical infrastructure. Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Smoke and flames can be seen along the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 6, 2016. Canadian police led convoys of cars through the burning ghost town of Fort McMurray Friday in a risky operation to get people to safety far to the south.In the latest chapter of the drama triggered by monster fires in Alberta's oil sands region, the convoys of 50 cars at a time are driving through the city at about 50-60 kilometers per hour (30-40 miles per hour) TV footage showed. / AFP / Cole Burston (Photo credit should read COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A Canadian Joint Operations Command aerial photo shows wildfires near neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this image posted on twitter May 5, 2016. Courtesy CF Operations/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 06: The remains of a charred bicycle sits in a residential neighborhood on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ALBERTA, CANADA - MAY 05: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Aerial view of highway 63 south of Fort McMurray taken from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter on May 5, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces have air assets deployed in support of the Province of Alberta's wildfire emergency response efforts. (Photo by MCpl VanPutten / Department of National Defence in Canada / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 06: A swing set with the swings burned away sits in a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 06: Home foundations and shells of vehicles are nearly all that remain in a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
VERMILLION PASS, CANADA - APRIL 26: A forest in the Kootenay National Park destroyed by fire is viewed on April 26, 2016 at Vermillion Pass, Alberta, Canada. Kootenay National Park borders Banff Nationa Park and features glaciers, hot springs, lakes, waterfalls, and snowcapped mountains. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
A convoy of cars sporadically heads South down Highway 63 after being stranded at a work camp north of Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 6, 2016. Canada on May 5, 2016 began airlifting to safety up to 25,000 people from the city of Fort McMurray forced from their homes by raging forest fires in Alberta's oil sands region.The authorities ordered the oil city of 100,000 people to be evacuated after firefighters backed by air tankers and helicopters failed to prevent the monster blaze from engulfing entire neighborhoods. / AFP / Cole Burston (Photo credit should read COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman picks through donated clothing and goods at a makeshift evacuee center in Lac la Biche, Alberta on May 5, 2016, after fleeing forest fires north of Fort McMurray. Raging wildfires pressed in on the Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray Thursday after more than 80,000 people were forced to flee, abandoning fire-gutted neighborhoods in a chaotic evacuation. No casualties have been reported from the monster blaze, which swept across Alberta's oil sands region driven by strong winds and hot, dry weather. / AFP / Cole Burston (Photo credit should read COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Exhausted and now living out of his truck, Fort McMurray resident Thomis Jonasson fills his vehicle with gas before heading towards Lac La Biche after evacuating his city of 62,000 due to raging wildfires on May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
Ron Laybolt calls family from a parking lot in Conklin, Alta. after Fort McMurray, a city of 62,000, was evacuated due to raging wildfires on May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
Wendy Tremblay, resident of Conklin, Alta., prepares cots for residents of Fort McMurray as they prepare to assemble in Conklin, Alta. after their city of 62,000 was evacuated due to raging wildfires on May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
Fort McMurray resident Crystal Maltais buckles in her daughter, Mckennah Stapley, as they prepare to leave Conklin, Alberta, for Lac La Biche after evacuating their home in Fort McMurray on Tuesday May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
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"We need to find more camps, we have secured spaces for about 6,000 people, we know we need to find more and that work is underway," Notley said.

Suncor Energy said evacuees were welcome at its Firebag oil sands facility, while Canadian Natural Resources Ltd said it was working to ensure any affected CNRL workers and their families could use its camps.

Notley said there were no injuries or casualties in the fire, adding that oil sands operations were also unaffected.

A number of flights from Fort McMurray airport were canceled and the airport advised passengers to check with their airlines for updates.

The blaze, which started southwest of Fort McMurray, spread rapidly on Tuesday to the outskirts of the city, forcing the evacuation of the downtown area and almost every community in the lower town on the banks of the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers.

"There's lots of smoke, its quite bad and hanging over the city. Where there are trees in the distance you can see the fire," Fort McMurray resident Nick Sanders told Reuters as he was packing up to leave downtown.

Earlier, TV footage and photographs on Twitter showed flames and smoke billowing over the city and traffic heading north on the highway to safety, while CTV News reported a trailer park had been destroyed.

"My thoughts are with people affected by the fire in Fort McMurray tonight. Stay safe and remember to follow evacuation orders," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted.

By late afternoon, the fire had blocked off one major route out of town, closing Highway 63 south of downtown.

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Some residents were evacuated to Noralta Lodge, an oil sands camp 21 kilometers (13 miles) north of Fort McMurray.

"Tomorrow is expected to be a more intense burning day than today is," said Bruce Mayer, assistant deputy minister of Alberta's Forestry Division.

Mayer said that nine air tankers, more than a dozen helicopters and more than 100 firefighters were battling the fire.

Earlier on Tuesday authorities said the wildfire jumped the Athabasca river and breached Highway 63, the main artery south from the isolated city, which is located around 430 km (267 miles) northeast of Alberta's capital, Edmonton.

Authorities are now expecting a cold front to reach Fort McMurray by Wednesday afternoon, bringing increased winds that will make tomorrow a more difficult fire-fighting day than today.

After a mild winter with lower-than-average snowfall and a warm spring, Alberta is much drier than normal for this time of year, raising the prospect of a long and expensive wildfire season.

Most oil sands facilities are to the north and east of the city, with the closest being Suncor Energy's base plant roughly 30 km (17 miles) away. A Suncor spokesman said there were no current impacts on operations.

Will Gibson, a spokesman for the Syncrude project, which has its facility around 40 km (25 miles) north of the city, said operations were unaffected.

A spokesman for pipeline company Enbridge Inc, which has crude and condensate pipelines in the region, said the company was monitoring the situation but there were no impacts so far.

This is the second major fire around the city in less than a year. Last May, wildfires in the area led to the evacuation of hundreds of workers from Canada's energy heartland, leading to a 9 percent cut in Alberta's oil sands output at the time.

The evacuations last year led to shutdowns by Cenovus Energy and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd at some of their projects. (Additional reporting by Euan Rocha and Allison Martell in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Hay, Sandra Maler and Bernard Orr)

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