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Alberta explores alternative route out of Fort McMurray as wildfire forces residents to flee

As thousands of Fort McMurray residents were again forced to flee their homes due to an out-of-control wildfire, the provincial government said Wednesday it is exploring another roadway out of the northern Alberta community.

On Tuesday afternoon, several Fort McMurray neighbourhoods were evacuated, with about 6,600 residents forced from their homes.

As they headed south, the roads were extremely congested as people left their homes and headed out of the city, bringing back memories of 2016, when the entire municipality was evacuated.

“Especially with a big population, being able to get out of town safely is very important,” said Fort McMurray evacuee Hannah Swan. “It felt like last time.”

Highways 63 and 881 are the only highways leading south out of Fort McMurray.

Premier Danielle Smith told reporters on Wednesday that early work is underway for an alternative route of out Fort McMurray.

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“We have commenced a process to do consultation on Highway 686, which would link the Peace Region to Fort McMurray,” Smith said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Premier Smith ‘prepared to do whatever is necessary’ to ensure people’s safety'

Alberta wildfires: Premier Smith ‘prepared to do whatever is necessary’ to ensure people’s safety

Smith said the route has not been decided yet, as it is too early in the planning stages.

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Adding another route out of Fort McMurray is something that was considered under Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

“It wasn’t looking at a completely different direction out,” Notley said Wednesday. “It was just a different exit that looped around and connected with (Highway) 63 farther south.”

After the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, formal recommendations were made following independent reviews that suggested improvements to communication, forecasting and investments in FireSmart funding.

Alberta Wildfire accepted all of the 31 recommendations.

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“What we’ve changed since 2016 is bringing in fire season a month early,” said Alberta Wildfire information unit manager Christie Tucker. “We have the earliest legal start here in Alberta and this year it was even earlier because of the conditions we were seeing.”

Click to play video: 'Lessons learned from 2016 applied to wildfire near Fort McMurray'

Lessons learned from 2016 applied to wildfire near Fort McMurray

Alberta’s wildfire season typically starts on March 1 and runs until Oct. 31, but this year it started 10 days earlier than usual.

New technology such as night-vision firefighting helicopters, is also helping in this year’s wildfire fight. Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen said there are three of those helicopters fighting the wildfire burning near Fort McMurray.

“The ability to fight fire at night has become a real game-changer in Alberta. We are the only jurisdiction in Canada that has night-vision helicopters,” he said.

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While some improvements have been made, Smith said the province is still learning.

“So much of the planning around this fire season took place because of the learning that we had last year,” Smith said.

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray residents who fled 2016 wildfire experiencing traumatic déjà vu'

Fort McMurray residents who fled 2016 wildfire experiencing traumatic déjà vu

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