Fort McMurray fire: 2,400 structures gone, 10% of city destroyed

Updated 3:01 PM EDT, Mon May 9, 2016
(CNN) —  

Authorities in Alberta are getting a depressing handle on the burning of Fort McMurray, where a catastrophic wildfire forced the flight of more than 90,000 people and torched an area half the size of Rhode Island.

Nearly 10% of the city has been destroyed, including at least 2,400 structures, a spokesperson for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said.

Authorities are anticipating a return in at least two weeks for people whose homes were not damaged. But they can’t move back now.

“Today this city is not safe,” Notley told reporters on Monday.

The weather is starting to cooperate a bit. The blaze is headed to sparsely populated areas. And firefighters from across Canada are suiting up to join the battle.

But the fire is still 0% contained and burning “out of control,” the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry department said.

“We may be turning a corner, but it’s too early to celebrate,” said Ralph Goodale, federal minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. “This beast is an extraordinarily difficult problem.”

Families torn apart

Melissa Gallant, who sent her two children thousands of miles away to stay with relatives in eastern Canada, said she believes this situation is “going to be traumatic for everyone.”.

“I just put them on a plane and told them that I loved them, and that I was going to see them as soon as I could figure it all out,” Gallant said. “They asked how long it would be, and I just told them that I didn’t know.”

Gallant said she wanted to spare her children, ages 7 and 12, the trauma of seeing their hometown of Fort McMurray charred.

“I want my kids to come back to normalcy,” Gallant said. “Not ground zero.”

Fort McMurray fire: Before and after
Fort McMurray fire: Before and after
PHOTO: Google Maps

The 32-year-old evacuated to Lac La Biche, about two hours away. But she insisted on staying in Alberta province, with or without a house.

“When we go back, there’s going to be lots to do. We have a city to rebuild,” Gallant said.

“If my house is standing, then there’s rooms for others who maybe aren’t so fortunate. If my house is gone, I need to know that, too.”

Hope on the horizon

The Fort McMurray wildfire has already torched 400,000 acres. But that’s far better than the roughly 500,000 acres officials feared would be gone by now.

“We’re very happy we’ve held the fire better than expected,” Alberta fire official Chad Morrison said. “We hope to see continued success over the next few days. For us this is great firefighting weather.”

The slowdown of the fire is the best news shared by Canadian officials since the fire started May 1.

Record-high temperatures that scorched northern Alberta last week will dip to below average and stay in the mid-50s through Thursday, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

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’We’ve held the fire better than expected’

The wildfire charred vehicles across Fort McMurray
The wildfire charred vehicles across Fort McMurray
PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The blaze is heading east toward Saskatchewan province.

“We’re working closely and collaboratively with the Saskatchewan government to assist them with their preparations,” Notley said.

Luckily, the path is sparsely populated – unlike the Fort McMurray area.

What evacuees took with them

Notley said she will visit Fort McMurray with some journalists to assess the devastation.

“There will be some dramatic images coming from media over the next couple of days,” she said.

READ: Women who fled Congo is refugee again in wildfire

Extreme hospitality

When Gallant tried to evacuate from McMurray, she drove through what looked like “a wall of fire” to Lac La Biche. What should have been a two-hour drive turned into an eight-hour nightmare.

Exhausted, she pulled up to a cottage belonging to the owners of the Ford dealership where she works. Gallant asked if she could sleep for a few hours in their driveway.

“They said, ‘We already have bedrooms here waiting for you,’ ” Gallant said.

At one point, the cottage owners had about 17 people staying with them.

“The true heroes in these stories are the people who aren’t out there telling about it,” she said.

1,500 firefighters deployed

Five hundred firefighters employing 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers have been struggling to contain the massive blaze in the Fort McMurray area. Firefighters from Edmonton and other cities are pouring into to help out. In all of Alberta, about 1,500 firefighters are working.

Firefighters from as far east as Quebec and New Brunswick will join the battle this week. At least 700 firefighters are on the scene and 300 more are on the way, officials said.

Fifteen helicopters and 14 air tankers are on the scene.

Across Alberta, strangers donated clothing and shoes to those who lost their homes.

Gallant said the outpouring of support has made the ordeal much more bearable.

“We appreciate all the prayers, all the donations,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t go unnoticed in a time of need.”

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Dan Simon reported from near Fort McMurray; Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Paul Vercammen, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Sheena Jones, Sean Morris, and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.