Despite heartbreaking scenes of utter destruction, firefighters managed to protect most of the oil town of Fort McMurray in the western Canadian province of Alberta, officials said Monday after touring the devastated town.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley joined with a group of government officials and journalists to see for the first time the destruction caused by the raging wildfire after it roared through Fort McMurray last Tuesday.
Notley credited the firefighters' heroism for helping stop the ferocious blaze that was capable of “levelling blocks and blocks of houses."
She also praised the first responders for “miraculously” getting the city's entire population out of danger.
“The fast action and the hard work, and the dedication and the smarts of these first responders appears saved almost 90 per cent of the city of Fort McMurray,” Notley told reporters.
“I’m told we’ve lost about 2,400 structures, we saved almost 25,000, including the hospital, the municipal buildings and every functioning school.”
Images of the tour broadcast live on Canadian television showed block after block of burnt out shells of houses turned into piles of ash, with the charred remains of cars parked in driveways or left abandoned in ditches in the city's Beacon Hill neighbourhood.
The city’s downtown appeared largely intact.
Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen said nothing more could have been done to protect the people and city from the "unprecedented fire."
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Allen said. “This is rewriting the book, the way this thing happened, the way it behaved. They’re rewriting their formulas on how fires behave based on this fire.”
Fort McMurray will rise from ashes again, Notley promised.
“The city was surrounded by an ocean of fire only a few days ago, but Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities have been saved and they will be rebuilt,” she said.
But Notley warned Fort McMurray residents anxious to return that the city is not yet safe.
“There are smoldering hotspots everywhere, active fire suppression is continuing, there are hazardous materials and broken power lines,” Notley said. “Basic services - gas, water, waste disposal, healthcare and much more needs to be re-established.”
First responders and utility repairs crews have weeks of work ahead of them before services are restored and residents can begin to return to the decimated town, she said.
Authorities are expected to present the schedule for return of the residents in two weeks, Notley said.
Notley warned that there is still a “large, growing and dangerous wildfire around us.”
The fire has now grown to 204,000 hectares (2,040 square kilometres), almost three times the size of New York City, officials said.
Alberta Wildfire manager Chad Morrison said there are about 700 firefighters combating the blaze, supported by 20 helicopters and 27 air tankers.