Canadian officials fear a massive wildfire that has devastated the oil town of Fort McMurray in the western Canadian province of Alberta will grow to double its size and reach the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan by Saturday evening.
The "out-of-control" fire nicknamed "the beast" has destroyed 156,000 hectares of forest, Alberta's Wildfire Manager Chad Morrison said at a press conference in the provincial capital Edmonton.
The blaze also has destroyed more than 1,600 homes and buildings in and around Fort McMurray and forced nearly 90,000 people to evacuate the city. The area it has burned is nearly twice the size of Berlin, and the fire could continue burning for weeks unless there is a heavy rain.
Morrison said firefighters expect "extreme fire behaviour" in forested areas as the fire continues to move away from Fort McMurray.
Fire crews continue to hold the line protecting the communities of Timberlea, Parsons Creek, Wood Buffalo and Thickwood, all located north of Fort McMurray's downtown, which has remained largely intact, Morrison said.
They also have held the line protecting three communities south of the devastated oil town - Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation and Lake Gregoire Estates - that were evacuated Wednesday night.
Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee praised Alberta's "heroic first responders," including military personnel, who he said "continue their work to contain this fire and protect buildings and infrastructure throughout the area."
She urged those who have yet to heed the mandatory evacuation order to leave Fort McMurray immediately.
"If you aren't a police officer, a firefighter or otherwise have a first-responder role in the emergency, you should not be in Fort McMurray," Larivee said.
There have been no deaths in the fire, but two people fleeing the blaze died in a traffic accident Tuesday. One of the dead was the 15-year-old daughter of a Fort McMurray firefighter.
Morrison said about 500 firefighters have been deployed in the area, with reinforcements arriving from the eastern Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
Morrison said authorities expect the fire to continue moving away from the affected communities near Fort McMurray. However, the fire could reach the edge of the oil sands production sites north-east of Fort McMurray operated by Suncor oil company on Saturday evening.
"These sites are very resilient to wildfire because they are largely clear of vegetation and trees and they also have highly trained industrial fire departments that know how to respond to these incidents," Morrison said.
Most of the oil sands production sites are located well north of the wildfire, which is now moving north-east towards the border with Saskatchewan, Morrison said.
Cooler weather is expected to slow down the fire's advance on Sunday, he added.
"But we still have long ways to go, and many long weeks and months ahead of us fighting this fire," Morrison said.
In the meantime, provincial authorities are stepping up their efforts trying to help the evacuees, urging them to seek government assistance in larger urban centres such as Edmonton and Calgary, Larivee said.
Officials hope to complete on Saturday the evacuation of mining camps north of Fort McMurray that hosted about 25,000 evacuees who had to flee the fast-moving wildfire to the north because the fire cut off the only escape route south towards Edmonton, Larivee said.
Some evacuees were sheltered in Alberta's isolated indigenous communities, and Larivee thanked them for "opening their doors and reaching out to people in need."
She singled out the "herculean" efforts of the 417-strong Fort McKay aboriginal community, which took in "hundreds upon hundreds" of evacuees, finding them accommodation, and generously donating fuel, food, water and clothing.