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Thousands Evacuated As Wildfires Rage In Alberta, Canada


A wildfire in Canada's oil sands region has forced the evacuation of an entire city. Around 90,000 residents have fled Fort McMurray and nearby communities. The fire has also led oil companies to suspend production in the area.

Joining us to talk about all of this is Evan Dyer, a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thanks for joining us.

EVAN DYER: Sure, pleasure.

SIEGEL: And tell us first, where are you and what are you hearing from evacuees?

DYER: I'm in a town called Lac la Biche, which is immediately south of the fire area. And this is an area that a lot of evacuees are coming to or through. It's really a small town, and it's unable to host the kinds of numbers that we're seeing fleeing the fire zone because Fort McMurray is really alone in this part of the country.

It's a big town built on oil. There's no other big towns around it for people to go to, so most evacuees are having to head on to points further south. But, you know, we've heard stories of people fleeing through hundred-foot-tall flames on both sides of the road with embers falling all around them.

I spoke to a couple who made that trip with a just newborn premature baby just about an hour ago. And you can imagine that many people who fled don't know what they've left behind. They don't know if their homes are still standing. We've also seen people who know their homes are gone.

I even spoke to a man who was told last night his home was gone, and then he learned this morning that it actually is still standing. So there's all kinds of emotions and all kinds of, you know, good and bad news coming out of the fire zone.

SIEGEL: We've heard this described as the biggest evacuation in the history of Alberta Province. Do you get that sense of the scale of it as it's happening?

DYER: Oh, absolutely, I mean, you know, a large number of people when they fled For McMurray, went to the north. The majority went south. The ones who went north, though, went north on the only north-south highway - the only highway that goes through town, Highway 63 - and were then cut off on the other side of Fort McMurray away from help.

And so, you know, there were 25,000 people stranded up there. And there's been an enormous effort to fly them out. Several thousand came out that way. But today, the Mounties tried to organize a convoy where those people would drive in a convoy about 1,500 vehicles back through the fire zone right through Fort McMurray and head to the south.

But what we're hearing is that that convoy has, again, run into some very, very serious fire on both sides of the highway, flames 200 feet high in some cases.

SIEGEL: Wow. Now, I understand that the oil facilities are not in the fire's direct path. But how have they actually been affected by this?

DYER: Well, in a number of ways. One way is simply the lack of labor because, of course, the labor force lives mostly in Fort McMurray, which has been entirely evacuated. So that's the first impact on the oil industry. Many people were already in the camps. These are typically camps where you fly in or drive in for two weeks and then come out for a week.

But even there, many have been shut down or slowed down because, first of all, the oil that comes out of here has to be diluted. There are pipelines that bring diluents in and then another pipeline that would bring the oil out. Both kinds of pipelines are at risk in some areas and have had to be shut down in a sort of preventative fashion.

And then there are fires blowing quite close to some big oilfields to the northeast of the city right now. And they've also been shut down as a safety measure. There's no significant damage yet to oil facilities, but there is a pretty significant drop in production.

SIEGEL: And just very, very briefly, do officials think they can get this wildfire under control anytime soon?

DYER: Not without help from the weather, no, because the fire is just too big. There's over 140 aircraft fighting this fire. But there's - nobody's under any illusion that people are going to stop this fire. We need a change in the weather.

SIEGEL: That's CBC reporter Evan Dyer in Alberta Province. Thank you.

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

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