Photographer: Jonathan Hayward/Via Bloomberg

Wildfire `Beast' Scorches Homes in Fort McMurray, Spares Core

  • About 90 percent of Canada oil town survives massive fire
  • Media tour offers first glimpse of burned-out oil hub

The town at the center of Canada’s oil production, ravaged for more than a week by one of the country’s most destructive fires, was for once eerily quiet Monday afternoon.

Most of the cars and trucks on the road were those abandoned by their owners, forced to flee as the balls of fire breached the city limits. Beyond a blue metal sign that says "Welcome to Fort McMurray," the charred remains of trees turn the landscape black. Some trees still smolder, sending plumes of grey smoke into the sky that was buzzing with helicopters hauling water to pour on the fire that continues to roar outside the city.

A government-led tour Monday provided one of the first glimpses beyond the police barricades that have closed off the town after the fire prompted the evacuation of 88,000 people from the city and nearby work camps. The tour revealed the carnage of an unprecedented fire, and surprisingly for some who feared the worst, the thousands of houses and buildings that remained untouched.

"It was a beast, an animal, a fire I’ve never seen in my life," Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen said during the media tour. "The massive areas that have been untouched is due to the incredible effort of emergency services staff."

About 2,400 structures, including homes, apartment buildings and businesses, were destroyed, and 25,000 saved, officials said.

Hospital Patients

The structures salvaged include the Northern Lights Regional Health Center, where about 100 patients were evacuated to towns south of Fort McMurray. Schools and their playgrounds were left largely unscathed, along with gas stations, retail plazas and equipment-storage facilities.

The fire skipped some areas while leveling entire neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill. Here, the neat subdivided community has been turned into an unrecognizable tangle of burned metal and charred wood, exposing fragments of what used to be homes. A community called the Ravine Park Townhomes in Abasand was also destroyed, felled walls and caved-in roofs slumped beyond a chain-link fence. Burned-out cars littered the streets.

Residents of Fort McMurray, many of whom have no idea if there homes are still standing, won’t be able to return for another two weeks at least, according to government and emergency services officials. 

"Home is still here," Allen said. "And as soon as we can get you back, we will."

Improved Outlook

There’s now a greater chance they’ll come home to a standing structure and not a burnt-out husk as about 10 percent of the city was lost in the flames, according to Premier Rachel Notley. That compares to 30 percent of homes destroyed in Slave Lake, Alberta, the largest fire disaster in Canada’s history, where a fire ripped through in 2011.

“This city was surrounded by an ocean of fire just a few days ago,” Notley told reporters after the media tour. “The city, and the surrounding communities, have been saved and they will be rebuilt.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.