Note: While I wrote this article and did interviews, the byline was split with reporter Cullen Bird, who also spoke with residents and covered Premier Rachel Notley's press conference.
More than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray are wondering if they will have a home to return to, after a fire that started Sunday quickly overwhelmed firefighters and the city’s resources, breaching the city. It is the largest evacuation in Alberta's history.
The municipality has ordered the evacuation of all of Fort McMurray. While some communities were ordered to head to the Anzac Recreation Centre, located approximately one hour south of Fort McMurray, people in all areas north of Gregoire were told they must go to Noralta Lodge.
But those locations quickly filled, and emergency shelters opened in Athabasca, Grassland, Conklin, Janvier and Lac La Biche.
During a 10 p.m. teleconference, the municipality reported Beacon Hill was completely lost. A fire was raging in Waterways and Wood Buffalo. Chief Darby Allen and the municipality confirmed there was damage to Dickensfield and Abasand, describing it as "light." An estimate of the number of properties lost and damaged has not been made.
The fire had yet to enter downtown. MacDonald Island Park, the first evacuation centre to open since the fire was reported Sunday, was evacuated along with the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.
"The worst of the fire is not over," said Bernie Schmitte, Alberta wildfire manager for the Fort McMurray area. "Tomorrow we're going to be challenged again."
Environment Canada has forecast Wednesday to be 30 C, with low humidity and strong winds.
Firefighters are trickling in from across the country. As of Tuesday evening, 150 firefighters were in the area. Another 70 to 80 more were expected to arrive on Wednesday. A request for military aid went out through the province earlier in the day. Allen said it would take two days for the army and air force to arrive.
By Tuesday evening, there were 17,000 evacuees at work camps north of the city. Anzac, with a population of 718, had 8,000. An estimated 9,000 were on their way to Lac La Biche and 18,000 en route to Edmonton.
Amazingly, no serious injuries or fatalities have been reported.
By the time the evacuation of Waterways was announced at 4:15 p.m., anyone immediately heading south saw much of their city on fire.
The immolation of the Centennial Trailer Park was nearly complete, with the flames stripping all that was flammable off the metal skeletons of mobile homes and vehicles.
Trees adjacent to Highway 63 were burning, with a thick smoke covering the highway. The McMurray Metis office was in flames. Only its wooden frame remained, about to collapse.
It was impossible to see into Waterways clearly, which was covered in a yellow and orange smoke. But trees and buildings could be seen burning through the haze.
Hundreds of trucks, cars, motorcycles and mobile homes had pulled over along Highway 63, engines choked by smoke or running low on gas. Most of their passengers sat dazed, many in tears.
Police officers wearing breathing masks directed traffic, moving in a bumper-to-bumper crawl. Soon, they would be patrolling the highway with gasoline for those stranded. A handful of good Samaritans helped direct after pulling over near side roads and businesses, either voluntarily or because they could no longer continue.
Abasand resident Peter Fortna said he was rescued by Phoenix Heli-Flight from the Draper Road Area and brought to the Fort McMurray International Airport. Fortna, along with his roommate and cat, did not think the flames could reach him. His hosts abandoned the area in a boat.
"It's gone. It's all gone."
At the Highway 881 turnoff, most continued south towards Edmonton. But those heading towards Anzac found thousands waiting for fuel at a gas station bordering Fort McMurray First Nation No. 468, fuel trucks raced to keep the pumps full, while the displaced waited at least an hour to restock their tanks.
During the wait, the gravity of the day finally hit those waiting for gas or taking a break to call loved ones.
"It's gone. My house is all gone," said Rachel Cusimano, 29, of Beacon Hill, choking back tears.
"I had a minor panic attack when me and my husband were packing but I kept it together. It's just hitting me now," she said. "I don't know if there's a city left. My heart is just completely broken."
Merv Hansen, 69, was working construction at the Fort McMurray Islamic Centre in Abraham’s Land when he left. For most of the afternoon he could see one plume of smoke in the distance. He ran home when that turned into four, but arrived too late.
“The house I was in is gone,” said Hansen. “The smoke was so thick and there were still people going into their homes.”
Despite losing his home, he remained stoic as he waited in line for a gas pump.
William Blundon, 35, and his fiancée, Brenda Byrne, 37, had recently returned to their home in Prairie Creek after staying at a friend’s place in Thickwood. Prairie Creek was evacuated Sunday evening, before the order was lifted Monday afternoon.
Now both they and their friends were fleeing town.
“What I don’t understand was why everyone was telling us to go downtown at first, because you could see the fire coming in,” said William.
Timberlea and Parsons Creek were the last to be evacuated, with orders to leave coming in shortly after 6:20 p.m. But most residents weren't taking any chances and had already left.
Cassandra Fountain, 22, left her Parsons Creek home to join family that had settled at Gregoire Lake Provincial Park.
“I prefer not to be stuck out there when all my friends and family are coming towards Anzac,” he said.
"All Albertans are with the people of Fort McMurray"
Since Sunday, the southwestern edge of Fort McMurray had been menaced by a fire officials once estimated had been as small as 500 hectares. But the size grew to 1,250 hectares the next day and by Tuesday morning, was more than 2,600 hectares.
By noon, smoke was covering most of downtown and an ominous column of orange, yellow and black could be seen. The Athabasca and Hangingstone Rivers had failed to provide buffers.
"There's no question this is serious," Premier Rachel Notley told a news conference in Edmonton. "All Albertans are watching this. All Albertans are with the people of Fort McMurray."
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who represents Fort McMurray-Conklin, said his two homes of the last 10 and 15 years were destroyed, as were businesses the family ran for three generations.
"I'm just hoping that the home I grew up in isn't, but I'm afraid it probably is," he said.
David Yurdiga, the MP for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake, pleaded for federal aid in a statement.
"This city has seen thousands of people leave their homes because of the downturn in oil. Fort McMurray cannot handle that and this wildfire," he wrote. "Even with the destruction caused by the fire thus far we will need federal funds to get back on our feet."
On his Twitter account, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed he had been in talks with Premier Rachel Notley about providing assistance.
"My thoughts are with people affected by the fire in Fort McMurray tonight," he wrote. "Stay safe and remember to follow evacuation orders."
Tuesday, May 3, 2016/Fort McMurray Today