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Wildfire Flares In Canada's Oil Sands Region


Tens of thousands of people are being evacuated from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray in the western province of Alberta. That's because firefighters there are unable to control a wildfire that has reached the city limits. It's destroyed several residential neighborhoods. And we're joined now on the line by CBC reporter Marion Warnica. She's at an evacuation center outside of the town of Fort McMurray. Thanks for being with us, Marion.

MARION WARNICA: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Can you describe, first of all, just the severity of this blaze?

WARNICA: Well, it's being called the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history. That's even more severe than the large wildfire in Slave Lake that basically destroyed that town about five years ago. So it's causing huge concern. We can say this morning that we know hundreds of homes have burned. We don't know exactly how many. They're still assessing the damage.

Police crews are still going through the town itself, which is under a mandatory evacuation order. They're going through street by street, home by home making sure that nobody is still there because yesterday, we saw this flare up really quickly with hot temperatures and winds. And they're looking at expecting similar weather again today, really hot scorching temperatures and gusting winds. So at a press conference late last night, the fire chief actually said we haven't seen the worst yet. The worst is not over yet. So that's how severe it is right now.

MARTIN: We mentioned you're at an evacuation center outside of the town. Can you just describe that scene? I mean, where have people been evacuated to? And what, if anything, have they been able to take with them?

WARNICA: Some people were able to take very, very little. And some people had just minutes to spare to pack up because, as I mentioned, it just really escalated. It was like a switch. So for a couple of hours, it went from, you know, we're cautiously watching this, sort of be ready, but you don't have to leave yet, to, like, you need to pack your things and go.

So I talked to a few people here. There's a group of seniors who were in the cafeteria here just sitting in these hard straight-backed chairs for a few hours waiting for beds in this evacuation center. They had spent five hours on a bus just to drive 20 kilometers to this spot out of town. Not a long stretch of road by any means. But because of the gridlock, all the people trying to get out, that's how long it took them. And they came from right downtown, which is one of the hot spots of this fire, so really harrowing experience for lots of people. We're seeing young families too. I'm hearing word that were actually a couple of babies born in this evacuation center last night.


WARNICA: So it's a busy and tense scene here.

MARTIN: And it's my understanding that this blaze is happening up in a part of Alberta where there are oil sands nearby. How is that complicating the firefighting effort?

WARNICA: Well, it's definitely impacting what is known as the economic driver of this province. The oil sites are being shut down. We're hearing that they're evacuating all nonessential workers. And that's mainly to make room in these oil sand camps for evacuees from Fort McMurray, who are coming out here and need a place to stay.

So they're shutting down these camps. And they're keeping a very watchful eye on that place, which, as we've mentioned, is expected to grow throughout the day today.

MARTIN: CBC reporter Marion Warnica, thanks so much.

WARNICA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.