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Trees burned in the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., stand sentinel over a neighbourhood in the city on May 15. Tensions in the city are high as wildfire rages about 5.5 kilometres from the city’s landfill to the south.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

This time, Nancy Grant is ready.

She lives in Waterways, Fort McMurray’s original townsite and a community prone to fires and floods. She and her husband, Glenn, lost their home to the 2016 wildfire that torched roughly 2,400 houses in this northern Alberta city. They had about 20 minutes to get out.

Now, she keeps three emergency bags – one for her, one for Mr. Grant and another for their adult son who has special needs – in a cargo box on the top of their Cadillac Escalade, always. She has three months’ worth of medicine on hand. And when fire started to threaten Fort McMurray this year, she packed more bags.

“My nerves are just shot,” Mr. Grant said Wednesday afternoon, in the yard where they rebuilt their home in Fort McMurray. “The PTSD is still strong. Especially if you have kids or grandkids.”

As wildfire approaches Fort McMurray, Alberta officials hope cooler temps, winds could push the blaze away

The Fort McMurray fire had consumed nearly 21,000 hectares by Wednesday afternoon, and was about 5.5 kilometres from the city’s landfill to the south. Officials ordered about 6,000 people out of four communities Tuesday, although locals believe plenty of other residents outside the evacuation zones also left, trying to avoid a repeat of the treacherous escape through ash, embers and smoke of eight years ago. The rest of the city, along with surrounding communities, are on evacuation alert.

Forest fires are burning in several areas in Western Canada, which has been stricken by a lingering drought. In British Columbia, close to 5,000 people in Fort Nelson and surrounding areas, including the Fort Nelson First Nation, have been out of their homes since Friday. That fire has chewed through 8,400 hectares and B.C. wildfire officials on Wednesday said strong winds could fan aggressive fire behaviour.

A separate fire north of Fort St. John prompted the Doig River First Nation and Peace River Regional District to issue evacuation orders.

The smoke turned the sky grey over Fort McMurray on Wednesday, with the odd helicopter flying overhead. The city, home to about 68,000 people, was quiet as families – shaped by the chaotic experience of 2016 – have either left or are packing up their belongings. Schools cancelled classes until May 21 and scores of businesses were closed.

Mayor Sandy Bowman said there is lingering trauma among community members, but he assured residents that everything possible is being done to protect Fort McMurray. “Stay safe, stay strong and continue to be there for each other,” he said.

Premier Danielle Smith acknowledged the fear and uncertainty blanketing Fort McMurray and offered her sympathy to residents.

“All of Alberta stands with you,” she said. “This evacuation is a stark reminder that our province lives alongside the threat of wildfires and other natural disasters.”

Nearly 120 firefighters and 21 helicopters have been assigned to the wildfire. Josée St-Onge, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire, said the gusting wind that powered its massive growth over the previous 24 hours was expected to die down and blow from the northeast on Wednesday. This, she said, could help drive flames away from residential areas.

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A pumper truck sprays fire retardant on trees around the evacuated neighbourhood of Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 15.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A second wildfire is burning north of Fort McMurray and has covered about three hectares. Two firefighting crews, two helicopters and airtankers are battling that blaze.

About 650 people from Fort McMurray have registered at evacuation centres in Lac La Biche, Edmonton and Cold Lake, according to Jody Butz, the director of emergency management and fire chief for the Fort McMurray region.

Ashley Russell lives in the Thickwood neighbourhood, which has not been placed under an evacuation order. She lost her Waterways residence in the 2016 blaze, which still haunts her.

“We’ve got everything packed and ready to go,” she said. “But I feel extremely uneasy, just sitting in this limbo of do I stay, do I go?”

She wants to flee now, but noted evacuation assistance is unavailable to those who leave Fort McMurray voluntarily. Her partner is also keeping her calm and she believes the community is better prepared this time.

She, too, is more on the ball. She packed two sweaters that belonged to her late father, as well as his Buddha lamp. Water bowls, leashes and other supplies for Luna and Lincoln, her two dogs, are set.

Long-time resident Dani Stark left Tuesday as a precautionary measure. She did not want to relive her 2016 experience, when it took her family, including a newborn baby, nine hours to flee north of the fires. She then had to evacuate south to Onoway, in central Alberta.

“You could see the big plume of smoke south of town, but just the way it kind of hung over the sky, it just was so reminiscent of 2016,” she said. “It brings up a lot of emotions and you think that you’re okay and then you see these things again.”

Nearby wildfire brings back painful memories for Fort McMurray

Ms. Stark is back with her family in Onoway, waiting for the situation to “calm down” up north.

Ms. Grant, meanwhile, spent the day planting beets and carrots, trying to clear her mind.

“If I have to leave, in the fall I can still come back and make my pickles,” she said on a tour of her garden.

Waterways, adjacent to the Clearwater River, is surrounded by the charred remains of the 2016 blaze. Officials are optimistic they can tame this year’s fire, because it does not have access to an abundance of dry fuel. Young trees with green buds are shooting up in the burned-out forest throughout Fort McMurray.

Ms. Grant sniffled and wiped her eyes when talking about the floods and fires of years past.

“If you’re not here, where are you going to go? Are you going to go where there’s wind? You’re going to go where there’s tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, rock slides, tidal waves? Where do you want to be? Because something is going to happen there.”

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