Airlift for thousands trapped by Canada wildfires

Lac La Biche (Canada) (AFP) - Canada prepared Thursday to airlift to safety up to 25,000 people who were forced from their homes by raging forest fires in Alberta's oil sands region, and now risk getting trapped north of Fort McMurray.

The oil city of 100,000 people has been ordered evacuated after firefighters backed by air tankers and helicopters failed to prevent the monster blaze from engulfing entire neighborhoods.

Authorities are now concerned that evacuees who found refuge north of the city could become trapped if shifting winds send the flames spreading towards them.

"Right now we are working with industry to do as much air evacuation as possible," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

"And we are doing everything we can to open the highways so we can get fuel up there and then get those folks moving south as quickly as we can."

Carried out with government and petroleum industry aircraft, an airlift will begin Thursday for a first 8,000 people, said Scott Long, executive director of operations of the Alberta emergency agency.

The government has declared a state of emergency in Alberta, a province the size of France that is home to one of the world's most prodigious oil industries.

- 'Terrifying' -

More than 1,100 firefighters are currently battling 49 separate blazes across the province -- seven of them totally out of control.

The fire has engulfed 85,000 hectares (210,000 acres) of forest including 12,000 in the area surrounding Fort McMurray, now the epicenter of the inferno, where 2,000 homes have been destroyed.

Television footage from the center of the disaster zone showed trees ablaze on the edge of highways crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to leave as billowing black smoke darkened the sky. Bright orange embers whizzed through the air and floated down onto cars.

"The footage we've seen, the cars racing down highways while fire rages on all sides, is nothing short of terrifying," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told lawmakers in Ottawa.

The Alberta government has sent a tanker under guard to help rescue vehicles stranded south of Fort McMurray, with three mobile fuel stations set up along a 200 kilometer stretch of road.

Trudeau's government has pledged to match one dollar for each dollar donated by the public to the Red Cross, which is providing aid to those in need.

Thousands of evacuees thronged the tiny hamlet of Lac La Biche, about 300 kilometers south of Fort McMurray, after making a chaotic escape.

"There's no guide on how to get out of a forest fire," evacuee Alan Javierto told AFP, recounting a hurried, frightening evacuation as homes and businesses were reduced to cinders.

The flight from Fort McMurray began in earnest shortly before midnight Tuesday after a mandatory evacuation order.

Late Wednesday fires forced the evacuation of Saprae Creek, a neighborhood east of the city's airport where even firefighters were forced to pull out.

As strong northwesterly winds whipped up the flames, three more communities to the south were evacuated, including Anzac, with police going door-to-door to make sure no residents were left behind.

- Slashing production -

Oil companies crucial to the region such as Suncor, Syncrude and Shell have pulled out non-essential employees, and set up emergency shelters in their huge bungalow worker communities.

All three major firms have slashed their output -- with Suncor shutting down its main production site north of Fort McMurray, and Shell Canada stopping production at its Albian site, with an output of 255,000 barrels per day.

Alberta has been left bone-dry after a period of unusually scant rainfall and unseasonably high temperatures.

One lawmaker, Rona Ambrose, who represents the affected region, wept as she vowed in parliament that it would recover from the disaster.

"Fort McMurray is a place where Canadians have come from all across this country. It's a tough day for Albertans but we will persevere" she said through tears.

- Blackened carcasses -

One particularly hard hit area was the Beacon Hill neighborhood some five kilometers from downtown Fort McMurray, where 70 percent of homes were in ruins. Even harder hit was the Waterways neighborhood, where nine in 10 homes have been reduced to charred remains.

Television footage showed the smoldering remains of a large motor home park, and the blackened carcasses of cars consumed by the flames.

Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale, called the fire "terrifying."

"This kind of disaster will not be solved in a day or two, a week or two, or a month or two. We're all going to have to be here for the long haul."