Convoys of thousands of vehicles flee Canadian wildfires

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FORT MCMURRAY, CANADA -- Convoys of vehicles carrying thousands fleeing the Fort McMurray fire rolled south under the watchful eye of Canadian police and military Friday as officials warned the monster fire will likely burn "for weeks and weeks" through uninhabited areas.

Canadian military helicopters hovered overhead to look out for smoke and flames along the evacuation route, while emergency fuel stations were set up to keep the convoy moving.

CNN partner CTV posted photos it said were taken as the convoy drove through the northeastern Alberta city. Flames and towering columns of smoke filled the sky.

Edmonton resident Bill Glynn, who was working in Fort McMurray when the fire broke out, was in a convoy and told the Edmonton Journal newspaper that the scene was "like a war zone."

"There were times you came over the hill and you couldn't see anything and just hoped the person ahead knew what they were doing," the newspaper quoted Glynn as saying.

"We had only gone two or three klicks," he said, using a term for a kilometer, "and there was the fire right at the side of the road. It was coming towards us."

Authorities expect to spend the next four days escorting small convoys through the fire-devastated city -- the only road route south -- until all 1,500 vehicles registered for the trip were clear.

Others will likely be airlifted out of the fire zone later Friday, as 7,000 were Thursday, according to authorities.

Some 15,000 people remain stranded north of the devastated city, but not all will leave, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said.

At least 88,000 people have been forced to flee, one of at least 40 burning in Alberta, the provincial government said. At least 1,600 homes have been destroyed.

Some remain behind

Some hardy souls working for the oil industry will remain behind to tend to facilities there, authorities said. The region is known for its massive oil reserves -- the third-largest in the world.

But officers are going into accessible areas and looking for signs of others, Sgt. Jack Poitras, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, told reporters Thursday.

"We still have some people who have been hanging around," he said.

Overnight, the fire's footprint grew to 1,010 square kilometers (389 square miles) -- racing up to the doorstep of the community of Anzac before firefighters beat it back.

Winds were expected to shift and push the fire away from developed areas.

Chad Morrison, a senior manager for wildfire prevention with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, warned of "extreme fire behavior" in the following days as the blaze pushes into heavily forested areas.

The fire will likely burn for "weeks and weeks," he said.

"There's no tankers we can put at this thing to stop it," he said, noting the fire was so large and aggressive it's jumped a 1-kilometer wide river and created its own lightning.

The cause remains unclear, Morrison said.

But the region is in the midst of a drought, he said. Two months without appreciable rain has left vegetation dangerously dry.

'The damage is extensive'

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.

Across the region, residents held food and clothing drives and raised money for victims. Others offered to put up families displaced by the fire. Restaurants gave out free meals. The Edmonton library system is allowing full use of its facilities and services, while Edmonton schools scrambled to welcome students.

Some 14,000 families had registered with the Canadian Red Cross, authorities said.

They won't be able to go home anytime soon.

"It will not be a matter of days," Notley said Thursday. "The damage is extensive."

Quick escapes

Cameron Spring was among the thousands who had to run quickly from the advancing fire.

He had 30 minutes to pack up a lifetime of memories from the house he grew up in.

"We had next to no warning," the 27-year-old said. "I was able to grab some clothes, toiletries, a hard drive and laptop, passport and my Brazilian jiujitsu belt."

Spring escaped just in time. His neighborhood -- more than 100 homes -- burned to the ground.

"Absolutely everything was leveled," he said. The only things left standing: burnt trees, a light post and a few chimneys.

But Spring doesn't have time to think about losing his home. He's also the safety and operations director at Phoenix Heli-Flight, which was busy evacuating hospital patients and helping firefighters by dropping water from the sky.

"It's not difficult at all to keep working and not think of it," he said. "Just knowing that everything we lost is replaceable is comforting."

One of those rescued was Peter Fortna, who with his cat, Sami, and his roommate, had fled about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) down the road to a friend's house.

A Phoenix pilot thought the area was in danger, so he set his helicopter down in a field when he saw Fortna and others nearby.

The pilot told them it was time to move to safety again and offered to take them to the airport, which was about a minute away by air. There, Fortna rented a car and drove 435 kilometers (270 miles) to Edmonton.

"I never feared for my life, but it was close enough," Fortna said of his ordeal.

On the run again

Many who heeded the evacuation orders had to flee a second time as the unpredictable fire headed toward an emergency shelter in Anzac.

Donna Guillamot was one of tens of thousands evacuated from the Fort McMurray area to Anzac this week.

"I thought it was safe here, so I guess we'll go to Edmonton," Guillamot told CBC News. "Now you're sitting here and all you see is red flames. It's pretty scary."

The kindness of strangers

Phoenix Heli-Flight's Spring said he's amazed by the generosity of strangers from all over Alberta province.

The wildfire destroyed gas stations, leaving evacuees stranded. So fellow Canadians drove up a clogged highway, giving away gas, food and water.

"That's the most emotional part of it -- everyone else coming to help you," he said. "It gives you hope ... not everything's going to be bad."

A punk band from Pittsburgh that was supposed to play Thursday night in Fort McMurray was instead to do a benefit show in Edmonton.

Anti Flag asked people to chip in at least $5 each for the all-ages show.

And an apartment leasing company, Mainstreet Equity, is offering units for displaced families to live in rent-free for at least three months.