CONKLIN/LAC LA BICHE, Alberta -- Exhausted evacuees stranded north of the fire-ravaged Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray sped through the only route out on Friday, escorted by police, after the out-of-control blaze destroyed entire neighborhoods and forced 88,000 to flee.
The fire enveloped Fort McMurray, burning some 210,000 acres in the area, forcing mass evacuations on Tuesday and Wednesday, and threatening two oil sands sites south of the city.
While the main fire turned southeast on Thursday, away from Fort McMurray, parts of the city still burned.
With helicopters overhead and police roadblocks at every turnoff through on the road, the convoy of 1,500 vehicles will not be allowed to stop until they pass the mandatory evacuation zone, south of Fort McMurray, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman said.
"Things have calmed down in the city a little bit, but guys are out as we speak, fighting fires, trying to protect your property," said local fire chief Darby Allen in a video message to residents posted late on Thursday night.
"The beast is still up, it's surrounding the city, and we're here doing our very best for you."
Some of the evacuees, who have spent days on roadsides and at oil sands camps north of town, did not know whether the fire destroyed their homes. Most have few possessions with them, and some left pets behind.
Footage from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. showed a long line of vehicles north of Fort McMurray on Friday morning, waiting to be leave, a few at a time for the drive south.
Just south of Fort McMurray, the first evacuees sped by, honking and waving as they drove south full speed under blue skies, according to a Reuters eyewitness.
Some 25,000 people had fled north on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to officials, as the blaze closed off their only route south.
About 8,000 people will be airlifted out, officials said, but most are expected to drive south.
"The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in a press briefing late Thursday.
Notley said it would not be responsible to speculate on when residents would be allowed to return: "We do know that it will not be a matter of days," she said.
South of Fort McMurray, CNOOC Nexen's Long Lake oil sands facility and Athabasca Oil's Hangingstone project were in danger, according to emergency officials. Both facilities have been evacuated.
Although the cause of the fire was not known, tinder-dry brush, low humidity, and hot, gusting winds made it nearly impossible to control.
The blaze, which erupted last Sunday, grew more than tenfold from 18,500 acres on Wednesday to some 210,000 acres on Thursday, an area nearly 10 times the size of Manhattan.
Additional reporting by Allison Martell.