Canadian officials airlifted 8,000 evacuees from a fire-besieged work camp area north of the western city of Fort McMurray, but the raging blaze prevented an overland attempt to move another 17,000 after flames and smoke jumped the southbound highway.
Scott Long, executive director of operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said officials would try again Friday to send at least a few convoys to safety.
“The ground transport plan was ready to go today, but it simply was not safe to do so,” Long said late Thursday, according to the Edmonton Journal. “We didn’t want people overcome (by the fire) as they were going through."
The new plan involves sending a convoy of some 400 vehicles, escorted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with a helicopter scouting the highway to make sure the road is passable, according to the Journal.
Gasoline tankers were sent in to provide fuel stops for vehicles making the long drive south. In addition, officials hoped to take out an additional 4,000 evacuees by air.
Officials say no fire-related deaths or injuries have been reported since the blaze began invading the city Monday and Tuesday. It has grown to 350 square miles — an area bigger than the five boroughs of New York City — and destroyed at least 1,600 structures.
Some 88,000 people — almost the entire the population of Fort McMurray — fled the fire, which showed no signs of subsiding Friday.
“The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents at this time,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said, explaining that officials were reluctant to put a timeline on when evacuees might be able to return. “We do know that it will not be a matter of days.”
Most evacuees fled south. Flames forced some of them to relocate a second time after the blaze closed in on suburbs 30 miles south.
Tens of thousands of others fled north, taking refuge at work camps in the oil sands area. Fort McMurray is surrounded by vast forests in the heart of Canada’s oil sands, which represent the third largest reserves of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
That move proved untenable Thursday as flames, driven by winds as high as 40 mph, began spreading in the dry and highly combustible pine forests.
More than 1,100 firefighters are battling the blaze, using 145 helicopters, 138 pieces of heavy equipment and 22 air tankers. Chad Morrison, of Alberta Forestry, said the key element missing is rain.
“Let me be clear: air tankers are not going to stop this fire,” he said, according to The Globe and Mail. “It is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain.”