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Thousands of residents forced to flee a fierce, wind-whipped wildfire threatening the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray were told Wednesday they’ll likely be out for days but may be allowed back as early as Tuesday.

Jody Butz, the fire chief in charge of the Fort McMurray region, said while Tuesday is the estimated return date, there are a lot of variables.

"This does not guarantee that you'll return on that day, but we want to advise you to be evacuated until then," Butz told a news conference.

"There are a number of criteria with the wildfire in order to lift that evacuation order.

“Typically, (lifting the order) centres on the containment of the fire, but every fire situation is unique."

About 6,600 residents in four southern neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray were ordered out Tuesday afternoon as a wildfire threatening from the southwest splayed in multiple directions, fed by high winds, sending columns of smoke skyward.

The rest of Fort McMurray, and other surrounding subdivisions, remain under evacuation alert. Residents have to be ready to move quickly.

Roads were busy Tuesday as even those who were not ordered out decided to leave.

Butz said those who've fled voluntarily are welcome back.

Thousands of residents forced to flee a fierce, wind-whipped #wildfire threatening the #oilsands hub city @FortMcMurray, Alta., were told Wednesday they’ll likely be out for days but may be allowed back as early as Tuesday. #evacuation

"The highway is open in both directions and traffic is flowing freely. Businesses and day-to-day operations continue for many parts of the region,” Butz said.

In Beacon Hill, one of the evacuated neighbourhoods, police kept watch under a sky of light haze as a handful of residents returned home briefly to grab vital but forgotten supplies such as prescription medicines. Nearby, crews squirted orange fire-retardant gel on bushes.

David Warwick, who has lived in the neighbourhood for six years, said evacuating feels familiar to eight years ago.

"Hopefully it's not going to get to the extent it was last time, but I guess we'll take it day by day and see how the wind plays," he said from his truck.

"They're definitely a little better prepared with the notices that came out. Lots of people left yesterday. It was a little bit chaotic, but people managed to get out safely."

Search and rescue volunteers Vanessa Marr and Lloyd Sawatzky helped direct traffic and conduct checks in the vacated areas.

Marr said she got a call early Wednesday morning to help.

"We leave our families behind and we just go. I have a 12-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl. They were kind of sad, saying, 'Please mom, stay safe," she said.

Sawatzky said he believes the province is better prepared now, with a new Regional Emergency Operations Centre to help co-ordinate volunteers.

"This is the first year they did it. A month ago they were panicking to get all their paperwork done," he said.

The fire moved to within five kilometres of the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881 – the main southern route out of the municipality — and about six kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill on the city’s outskirts.

It had grown to 210 square kilometres in size.

Josee St-Onge, an Alberta Wildfire information officer, said favourable winds should push the fire away from the city, but weather can change at any point.

This is the second time in eight years Fort McMurray, a city of 68,000, has been forced to flee the flames. In 2016, a wildfire nicknamed The Beast destroyed well over 2,000 homes and forced 80,000 to leave.

In Edmonton, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said she sympathizes with those who've left, but said public safety is paramount.

“I know that this will bring back difficult memories from the devastating fires of 2016,” Smith said at a fire information update.

“Our government will have Alberta’s back whenever a disaster strikes.”

Smith’s government has promised those displaced by fire evacuations will be eligible to receive $1,250 per adult and $600 per child after they are out of their homes for seven days.

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said crews continue to fight the flames on the ground and in the air while also erecting fireguards to slow the blaze.

He said the area is under a fire ban and there is also a ban on off-road vehicles.

Butz has said this fire is different from the 2016 one because it is moving through the path destroyed by the predecessor fire.

The 2016 fire roared through spruce trees and destroyed much of the oilsands community. The recovery took years.

But, Butz said, the new fire is burning along the surface of the old and has much less fuel to consume. Burning muskeg is generating the smoke.

Wildfire season has started early, with several fires burning across Western Canada forcing residents out of their homes.

In British Columbia, a widening area around the northeastern community of Fort Nelson remained under evacuation, with a fire burning close by and another raging to the northwest.

Mayor Rob Fraser urged residents not to return to their homes after RCMP had to relocate a safety checkpoint outside the community. He said emergency crews need to focus on fighting fires rather than looking out for people heading into harm's way.

An update from the BC Wildfire service said winds could pick up in the north later Wednesday, including the Fort Nelson area.

It said there's potential for gusty winds to fan "aggressive fire behaviour" and increase spread, posing challenges for suppression efforts.

The service said conditions remain unseasonably warm and dry throughout much of the province.

In Manitoba, about 500 people have been forced out of their homes in the remote northwestern community of Cranberry Portage.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2024.

-- with files from Bill Graveland in Calgary, Brenna Owen in Vancouver, Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon and Jeremy Simes in Regina.

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