Alberta declared a state of emergency Wednesday as crews frantically held back wind-whipped wildfires that have already torched 1,600 homes and other buildings in Canada's main oil sands city of Fort McMurray, forcing more than 80,000 residents to flee. Whole neighborhoods have burned, but an Alberta Emergency Management Agency spokesman says flames are being kept from the downtown area thanks to the "herculean'" efforts of firefighters, the AP reports. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley flew up to survey the situation, while officials in the evacuation center had to bolt to the south of the city as flames edged closer. There were haunting images of scorched trucks, charred homes, and telephone poles, burned out from the bottom up, hanging in the wires like wooden crosses.
The blaze effectively cut Fort McMurray in two late Tuesday, forcing about 10,000 north to the safety of oil sands work camps. The other 70,000 or so were sent streaming south in a bumper-to-bumper line of cars and trucks. One resident tells the AP that evacuating almost felt like an apocalypse. "We had to literally drive through smoke and fire, vehicles littered all over the sides of the road, and we had to drive as fast as we could and breathe as little as we could because the smoke was so intense and we could feel the heat from inside the vehicle," she says. The Edmonton Journal reports that on Wednesday night, winds expanded the fire and the evacuation zone, forcing hundreds of people to flee the blaze for a second time. (Read more Canada stories.)