A massive fire that officials in Alberta, Canada, have called a “beast” is being fed by winds and “tinder-dry” conditions and sending thousands of people near Fort McMurray fleeing from their homes.
And on Friday, a tragic story emerged of a teenager killed while fleeing the blaze with her family, like thousands of others.
“Ultimately, it’s still a shock, the grief comes in waves,” said Chelsi Ryan, sister to 15-year-old victim Emily, told CBC News. “It’s tragedy, layered on tragedy.”
The Ryan family fled Fort McMurray on Wednesday. Emily left in an SUV with her stepmother’s nephew, Aaron Hodgson, and headed down Highway 881 out of town. Local police said traffic was moving along at highway speeds as people fled the blaze.
Around 1:30 p.m., Emily reached a town called Lac La Biche and escaped the wildfire, but the SUV she was riding in hit a tractor-trailer. A massive fire erupted, and both she and Aaron were killed on the scene.
Emily’s father, Cranley, is a firefighter and rushed to the site of the crash, which closed the highway and sent up plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles. He’s since been relieved of active duty to be with his family.
The teen is one of a set of triplets. Chelsi called her sister an old soul who spent every dollar she earned to buy books.
“She was always well beyond her years in maturity. We’re sure she’s not very happy either about being 15 forever.”
While the fire rages back near Fort McMurray, Chelsi put the loss of their home in perspective.
“[T]here’s lots of grief to go around, but ultimately anything we lose is just stuff. We’d let it go a thousand times for Emily to be with us.”
The Ryan family is just one of 88,000 people who’ve had to flee the Fort McMurray area as a massive fire scorched 328 square miles and destroyed 1,600 homes. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley warned Thursday that the fire may only spread due to dry conditions, NBC News reported.
The area isn’t expected to get rain for the next few days. Despite the 1,110 firefighters, 145 helicopters, and 22 air tankers working to extinguish the blaze, rain and cool weather are the only things that will stop it, said an official identified only as Morrison.
“No matter how many air tankers we throw at this thing we’re not going to be able to stop this fire. It’s going to continue to burn with high intensity for the next several days until we get some rain or cooler conditions.”
About 49 wildfires were burning Thursday night, and seven of them are considered out of control. Gusting winds aren’t making it easier for fire crews.
“We’re still here, we’re still battling,” said fire chief Darby Allen. “The beast is still up, its surrounding he city and we’re here doing our very best for ya.”
CTV News reported that early on Friday, a convoy of evacuees from the Fort McMurray area were heading south. About 17,000 people are stranded north of the city with little supplies and no way to escape. Officers will escort 50 vehicles at a time out of Fort McMurray via its main route, which is about 40 miles long. Others will be airlifted.
Communities south of Fort McMurray — Edmonton, Lac La Biche, and others — are taking in the 80,000 residents who’ve fled the city. Notley, the Alberta premier, said evacuated locals are uneasy and eager for answers and to get home. However, no one knows when the area will be safe.
“The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents. It is simply not possible, nor is it responsible to speculate on a time when citizens will be able to return. We do know that it will not be a matter of days.”
[Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images]