Canadians drive through burning city seeking safety on the other side

Agence France-Presse
Smoke billows behind a structure from the Fort McMurray wildfires in Kinosis, Alberta, Canada, May 5, 2016.
Smoke billows behind a structure from the Fort McMurray wildfires in Kinosis, Alberta, Canada, on May 5, 2016. 
Mark Blinch

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 30 to 40 miles per hour, TV footage showed.

Police took up positions at intersections along the way to keep people from detouring to their houses to try to salvage belongings and make sure the route remains safe from the fire, which has encircled the town of 100,000.

The people being evacuated — for a second time, after first abandoning their homes — had fled this week to an area north of the city where oil companies have lodging camps for workers.

A Canadian Joint Operations Command aerial photo shows wildfires near neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on May 4, 2016.

But officials concluded they were no longer safe there because of shifting winds that raised the risk of them becoming trapped, and needed to move south to other evacuee staging grounds and eventually to Edmonton, 300 miles away.

Some 8,000 people were airlifted out of the northern enclave Thursday on helicopters and planes. The road convoys are for the remaining 17,000.

Before the convoys got under way officials had to make sure the escape route was safe, and truck fuel in so people had gas to make it across the burning city.

The government has declared a state of emergency in Alberta, a province the size of France that is home to one of the world's most prodigious oil industries.

More than 1,100 firefighters are battling 49 separate blazes across the province — seven of them totally out of control.

The fires have engulfed 210,000 acres of forest including nearly 30,000 in the area surrounding Fort McMurray, now the epicenter of the inferno, where 2,000 homes have been destroyed.