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'Unpredictable, dangerous' Fort McMurray fire expected to double in size

Last Updated May 7, 2016 at 2:54 pm EST

The Alberta government expects to complete moving people through Fort McMurray today to the south side of a massive and growing wildfire that is threatening the city.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says officials expect the fire to double in size today and reach the boundary with Saskatchewan.

The government says the area damaged by fire or still burning had grown Friday night to 1,560 square kilometres.

Notley says firefighters continue working to protect the downtown and homes in Fort McMurray and held the line for a second straight day.

The premier says the gas supply has been turned off in the city and the power grid has been damaged.

Water in the city isn’t drinkable and hazardous material will have to be cleaned up before residents can return, although the government has begun preliminary planning for people to return.

Earlier in the day Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the fire situation remains “unpredictable and dangerous.”

And Goodale says firefighters from other provinces are being brought in to spell off those who have been battling what he calls “this beast of a fire” for a week.

Goodale also said the convoy moving people who have been taking shelter at oilsands work camps north of Fort McMurray would continue.

He said about 7,500 people were moved through Fort McMurray to the south on Friday and it was hoped the same number could be transported out of harms way on Saturday.

The exodus of the last evacuees remaining in the area comes as fire officials predict the area destroyed and being burned by the sprawling fire could double this weekend.

Officials have stressed the wildfire that forced 80,000 people from their homes remained out of control and was likely to burn for weeks.

The government said Saturday the area damaged by fire or still burning had grown overnight to 1,560 square kilometres, about 50 per cent larger than it was on Friday.

In all, more than 20,000 displaced residents had been living in oilsands work camps since Tuesday after the blaze cut the main road through Fort McMurray and sent residents fleeing either north or south.

Those who managed to escape south settled in hotels, campgrounds, with friends or at temporary reception centres. About 1,800 were being housed at the Northlands Expo Centre in Edmonton. Others went to Calgary.

They learned the government of Alberta would be giving them $1,250 for each adult – $500 for dependents – to cover their immediate needs while the Red Cross reported donations for victim relief have crossed the $30 million threshold. The federal government has promised to match those funds.

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The RCMP caught the first – and so far only – looter in Fort McMurray on Friday. Mounties said a local man was arrested after they responded to a break and enter call. A police dog was used to track him down.

“Crime is not rampant in the community,” RCMP Insp. Kevin Kunetzki said Saturday.

Officers have been finding people in Fort McMurray who did not comply with the mandatory evacuation order.

One was an elderly man who was found in his home, with his dog. Patrols also came across a family of five, including three young children, who didn’t leave because they didn’t think they were in danger.

Mounties escorted them all out of town.

Kunetzki said the RCMP has checked about 30 per cent of the homes in the city for stragglers.

Most of the people they have found did not have the means to get out of the city, he said.

“The numbers are not great, but they still exist and are out there, and obviously we are concerned about their health with the amount of smoke there is in the community,” he said.

Visibility is at times less than 10 metres, said Kunetzki, adding the smoke has been so thick that he sometimes has barely been able to see in front of his car when driving.

Alberta is now under a provincewide fire ban. Premier Rachel Notley has urged people to stay out of the forests altogether, and the province ordered a ban on recreational use of off-highway vehicles.

Reporters Avery Haines and Courtney Theriault are in Fort McMurray covering the wildfires that have forced the evacuation of thousands of residents. Follow their tweets below or here on mobile.

Rogers is giving free long distance/texting to Fort McMurray until May 17 and we are partnering with the Red Cross. If you would like to donate $10, text the word FIRES to 45678 or 30333 for a $5 donation.