As their city burned, Shams Rehman, his wife and three kids, were among the 80,000 residents fleeing Fort McMurray when they ran out of fuel 200 kilometers into their southbound trek to safety.

As traffic choked Highway 63, a stranger lent them a jerry can and they were able to get on their way. It was one of the many gestures of kindness that Mr. Rehman said marked a chaotic evacuation under fiery conditions.

“There was smoke everywhere and it was raining ash. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said after his family reached an evacuation centre in the resort town of Lac La Biche, Alta.

“I just wanted to get out of that mess. I just wanted to get my family to somewhere safe.”

All of Fort McMurray was evacuated Tuesday afternoon, in one of the largest such operations in Canadian history, after a wildfire reached town. A Flying J gas station blew up, homes are in ruins, and downtown was on fire, witnesses said.

Fort McMurray is the centre of Canada’s oil sands industry and the fire forced major operations north of town to evacuate non-essential employees. Fort McMurray is about 440 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, and only one two-lane highway connects the cities.

Headlights stretched for hundreds of kilometres through parched boreal forest as residents headed south.

Neighbouring communities in northern Alberta threw their doors open on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning to accommodate the evacuees. Residents of towns like Lac La Biche staffed recreation centres, opened restaurants and struggled to get gas to stranded motorists. Most of the evacuees were bypassing the smaller centres and continuing on to Edmonton.

Sana Rehman and her husband grabbed the title and mortgage papers to their Fort McMurray home, a house they hope is still standing. Their daughter, Shiza, opted to bring her stuffed skunk. As the family drove away from burning homes and businesses, she asked her parents if she would need to go to school the next day.

“I just can’t explain. It was just so sad leaving everything behind. It was really scary,” Ms. Rehman said.

Evacuation centres

Lac La Biche is prepared to handle about 1,000 evacuees, placing people in hotel rooms, an old seniors’ lodge, and on cots at the Bold Center, according to Shadia Amblie, Lac La Biche County’s chief administrative officer. The town is about 300 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, and about 220 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

The county had registered and placed 180 evacuees as of 4 a.m., officials said. The community also opened its campgrounds and people are using those facilities. Private campgrounds also allowed evacuees to set up. Lac La Biche has about 600 hotel rooms, hundreds of camps sites, and about 40 beds in the old Lacalta Lodge. The college has also offered dorms.

The province sent about 500 cots to the Bold Center.

An evacuation centre has also been established in Anzac, a hamlet south of Fort McMurray; Edmonton’s Expo Centre; and other locations.

Fleeing the fire

With little time to pack or plan, most evacuees in Fort McMurray just jumped into cars in their driveways that had the most gas. As residents fled the affluent city, they reported popping sounds as trucks, campers and boats left behind exploded.

Despite the size of the evacuation, city officials reported that the only injury was a sprained ankle.

The smell of acrid smoke still clung to Dan Bickford’s clothes and his eyes were bloodshot and red hours after fleeing from Fort McMurray

“This was a long day that started when the light just went away. It was like someone just flipped a switch,” he said of the moment around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday when the winds shifted and pushed smoke and fast-moving flames towards the city.

He got a text from his wife at 1:43 p.m. telling him to start getting ready to evacuate. His wife, two daughters, two dogs and one cat, got into two cars and fled south. As they left, he says the Beacon Hill neighbourhood was in flames. The area, nearest to where the wildfire started on Sunday, looked beyond saving, he added. “It’s a nice neighbourhood and now it’s just done.”

With only a few minutes to pack, he grabbed some bags and threw them in their burgundy Ford F-350 Super Duty 4×4. There was chaos in the oil sand’s capital as the family drove away. It took them two hours to cover four kilometres. The passed cars stuck in ditches, driving across grass and navigating sidewalks.

“People were driving everywhere, it was absolute chaos in town. There were people stuck in ditches, driving across the grass and on sidewalks.

“You just couldn’t see two feet in front of your truck through all the smoke,” he said at the Lac La Biche evacuation centre. As they pushed south, through bumper-to-bumper traffic, he says he looked in his rear-view mirror and all he saw was smoke.

“Our kids grew up in Beacon Hill, in our first house, and I just don’t know if it’s still there anymore,” he said.

Southbound traffic on Highway 63 was backed up starting at Grassland, Alta., as evacuees scrambled to get fuel, rest, and food on Wednesday morning. The jam, however, eases immediately south of town. Traffic north to Lac La Biche flows freely.

Radhika Shukla fled her home in Fort McMurray’s Parsons Creek neighbourhood. “In downtown, the fire was on both sides” of the street, she said just before her crew was taken to the old seniors’ home in Lac La Biche.

Ziad Taraien owns Taras Pizza in Lac La Biche. The joint had cooked about 400 pies by early Tuesday. His shop stayed open late, serving customers and delivering pizza to the Bold Center. “If they need me to cook, they can give me a phone call, it won’t take long,” he said, dropping off a stack of hot pizzas. “I’m here to help.”

A local caterer will prepare a hot breakfast Wednesday morning., Ms. Amblie said. About 15 to 20 county employees are manning the Bold Center. About 2,500 people live in Lac La Biche.

Lac La Biche County is picking up the tab for the food and hotel rooms for now. “We’ll worry about the details later,” Ms. Amblie said. A town councillor owns the Lacalta Lodge. “He told me this afternoon – ‘No charge,’ ” Ms. Amblie said. “So I’m going to hold him to that.”

Lac La Biche is among the communities sending emergency personnel and vehicles to Fort McMurray. Two of its fire trucks and four volunteer firefighters left for the northern city Tuesday afternoon.

The blaze

There were “no active structure fires” in the neighbourhoods of Thickwood, Wood Buffalo, and Timberlea, as of early Wednesday, according to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Twitter account.

As a fire burned through Fort McMurray’s suburbs toward downtown, a wall of flames sprouted up along the only highway out of town.

The fire had been burning southwest of Fort McMurray since Sunday, but a sudden shift in winds around 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday led to a dramatic turn as the fire jumped over rivers and roads, tearing into the northern Alberta city.

“Our focus is completely and entirely right now on ensuring the safety of people, of getting them out of the city,” Premier Rachel Notley said Tuesday afternoon from the government’s emergency centre in Edmonton.

Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen on Tuesday evening said he had just lived through the worst day of his career. He did not have an estimate of the number of homes destroyed, but said the fires were burning in several areas in the city.

Brian Jean, the head of the Wildrose Party, said he is among those who lost their homes.

“My home of the last 10 years and the home I had for 15 years before that are both destroyed,” the leader of Alberta’s Opposition and member of the legislature for the area said.

The fire had covered nearly 27 square kilometres outside of the city by Tuesday morning, but as the flames surged toward Fort McMurray, the 100 firefighters battling the flames had to pull back. To fight back the flames, nine air tankers and more than a dozen helicopters dropped long streams of water and fire retardant as the fires spread.

“The wildfire behaviour is extremely erratic and it isn’t safe for firefighters to be on the ground,” Laura Stewart, a wildfire information officer with the Alberta government, said. “It’s a very fluid situation and things are changing by the moment.”

Officials called for calm Tuesday as worried residents took to the roads and caused traffic chaos as they fled. Many evacuations orders were given with less than 30 minutes’ warning as officials seemed to be caught off-guard by the rapid advance of the flames. The city was cut in half in the afternoon as flames leapt across Highway 63.

Cassie White, 19, said she feared for her life as she tried to flee the area only to be turned around near Gregoire, near the south end of Fort McMurray.

“On the left was a big gas station; the flames jumped over the highway and blew up the gas station. It was torched,” said Ms. White, who was making her way to Edmonton with her boyfriend.

“People were driving on the shoulder. There were flames maybe 15 feet high right off the highway. There was a dump truck on fire – I had to swerve around it – and there was a pickup truck on fire as well. The entire trailer park on my right was in flames. Roofs were coming down.”

A huge sheet of debris – possibly part of a roof – hit her car as she drove up a hill, she recalled. She saw police officers in oxygen masks and civilians breathing through wet cloths.

Chas Coley awoke midday from a night shift to a friend calling to warn him to “start packing.” Police officers and concerned locals had to knock on every door in the city’s downtown, worried that shift-workers could sleep through the clamour and evacuation notices.

When Mr. Coley, a heavy equipment operator, escaped with his Rottweiler around 5 p.m. He said a blaze 15 metres high was licking at the tree line of the property next to his home in the Dickinsfield neighbourhood.

“When I left the house I saw flames, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my house was barbecued,” said Mr. Coley, a Newfoundland native who has owned the home for six years.

The province had found room for only 6,000 evacuees as of Tuesday evening.

Noralta Lodges Ltd, which operates facilities that provide housing for the oil sector, said it was opening the doors to hundreds of rooms, free of charge, to evacuees from Fort McMurray. Evacuation shelters were also opened across the province, including in the capital of Edmonton.

“We’re just trying to get people safe,” spokesperson Blaire McCalla said from the Edmonton area where she was monitoring the situation. “Our operations teams are just flat out trying to get everybody safe, and get them food and get them calm.”

Curtis Galas said he had no choice but to offer evacuees free lodging at his small resort on Elinor Lake, about a three hours’ drive south of the destruction.

Mr. Galas, who spent 14 years working in Fort McMurray before taking over the resort four years ago, said three families had booked rooms and two remained open as of Tuesday evening.

“We’re ex-Fort McMurray residents, so we’ve opened our hearts and the doors,” Mr. Galas said from Normandeau, Alta. “This is just devastating, but it’s amazing how the people have pulled together.”

More heavy equipment and more than 100 additional fire fighters were headed toward the city. Emergency crews from nearby oil-sands operations helped fight the flames, with municipalities across the province offering aid.

Much of Alberta has been under extreme or very high wildfire warnings over the past month. After 2015 was marked by the worst drought in a half-century, the province experienced a mild winter that left little snow. A heat wave across the province this week, as well as strong winds, turned the vast forests around Fort McMurray into an inferno.

The destruction

Late Tuesday afternoon, municipal Councillor Allan Vinni said a significant portion of the Abasand Heights neighbourhood in Fort McMurray has been lost. He was in the area as the fire approached, trying to help an employee and her daughter evacuate.

He saw a wall of flames nearly 12 metres high only a block away from his car and they were fortunate to get out on time.

“I’m covered in ash here,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s still burning like hell up there.”

“From what I can see, we’re in serious trouble here,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult to stop this fire.”

Mr. Vinni, a lawyer, was driving his employee’s antique Mustang that kept stalling as he tried to evacuate Fort McMurray. Downtown, he said, was a “ghost town.”

Alberta’s fire crews had been on alert across the province since March 1. The province’s wildfire officials say they were ready for this fire as a result of changes made after a 2011 blaze destroyed more than 400 buildings in the community of Slave Lake.

Fire officials had warned on Tuesday morning that they faced a challenging day ahead keeping the fire at bay. At 11 a.m. they said the flames were 1.2 kilometres away from Highway 63 and a night of work building fire defences seemed to be working.

Whipped up by the strong winds and heat, the flames moved toward the city around 1:30 p.m. By 2:15 the first residents were told to leave. Two hours later, more than half the city faced a mandatory evacuation order. The first homes were on fire as those residents fled.

By late afternoon Tuesday, Fort McMurray residents were being evacuated south to the hamlet of Anzac, and north to the Noralta Lodge at a Suncor Energy site 20 kilometres north of town.

All non-essential personnel in Suncor’s oil-sands operations were evacuated on Tuesday evening. Spokesman Paul Newmarch said the company’s primary concern is the safety of its employees. “We’re monitoring the situation closely and working closely with the municipality,” he said.

Syncrude Canada Ltd. spokesman Will Gibson was speaking to reporters by phone as he and his family tried to navigate the bumper-to-bumper evacuation traffic. He said there were houses on fire in their Beacon Hill neighbourhood as they drove away late Tuesday afternoon.

At about 5 p.m. MST, Mr. Gibson said the fire was nowhere near Syncrude’s operations, and he was unsure whether facilities were still running normally.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the federal government was monitoring the situation.

“I strongly encourage impacted residents of Fort McMurray to follow the directions of their municipal law enforcement and first responders.” he said in a statement. “If you are being ordered to evacuate, please do so for your own safety.”