An estimated 1,600 homes and buildings have been destroyed by a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., and the province has declared a state of emergency.

The northern Alberta town, which is Canada’s oilsands capital, was caught off guard by a quick-spreading conflagration on Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon, more than 80,000 people had heeded a mandatory evacuation order, and tens of thousands were staying in emergency shelters in communities like Lac La Biche and Edmonton. Some oilsands mines have been shut down.

Late Wednesday night, the regional municipality announced a mandatory evacuation of the communities of Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation – which lie roughly 50 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.

All residents from Anzac and Gregoire Lake Estates were safely transported to Lac La Biche.

The flames continued to spread Wednesday, amid temperatures that exceeded 30 C combined with high winds.

Firefighters fought hard to save the city’s water treatment plant. The airport appears to be at risk.

Temperatures are expected to fall to a high of 20 C on Thursday, but officials said it could be days before the situation is under control.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters Wednesday morning that approximately 1,600 structures had been damaged or destroyed -- four times as many as in Slave Lake in 2011.

“We have basically two things that we have to do,” she later told CTV Edmonton from Anzac, where many Fort McMurray residents were staying temporarily. “We have to respond to this emergency, and we have to recover from it.”

Notley said the province-wide state of emergency will help the province obtain federal funds.

Notley joined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in encouraging Canadians to donate to the Red Cross. Alberta has said it will match financial donations made to the charity.

Alberta Opposition Leader Brian Jean, who represents Fort McMurray—Athabasca, is among the many whose homes have been destroyed.

“My home is burnt to the ground but it’s just stuff,” a teary-eyed Jean told reporters. “All my stuff, all my memories. I lost a son last year…” he said.

Jean, who leads the Wildrose Party, later told CTV’s Power Play he wants to focus on making sure that everyone leaves Fort McMurray immediately.

“The fires that are surrounding Fort McMurray right now could go in any direction,” he said. “And that means they could be cut off from Highway 63 both north and south in the future.”

Jean said he is optimistic that the community will be rebuilt better than ever. “We will come back stronger and continue to provide the great economic generation that we do for the rest of the country,” he said.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale told CTV’s Power Play that while fires had been burning over the weekend, “on Sunday and Monday this thing just exploded in terms of ferocity.”

“The whole city has been evacuated,” he said. “That’s something in excess of 88,000 people and the fire is still very dangerous.”

Goodale said that the Department of National Defence has deployed aircraft, including helicopters, that could be used to rescue people should the fire threaten some of the areas where residents are staying temporarily.

Earlier in the day, he told reporters Wednesday from Ottawa that federal agencies are assisting with everything from stockpiling cots and bedding to repairing damaged cellphone towers.

Goodale said that Service Canada is looking into “the necessity for income supports as people try to restore their lives and get back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Some neighbourhoods 'completely leveled'

The worst-affected neighbourhoods appear to be Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways, according to an update given early Wednesday afternoon by the regional municipality.

Officials said in a tweet that 90 per cent of homes in Waterways, 70 per cent of homes in Beacon Hill and 50 per cent of homes in Abasand had been affected.

The Saline Creek area was unaffected, according to the municipality, while there appeared to be small numbers of homes lost in Grayling Terrace, Downtown, Thickwood, Timberlea and Dickinsfield.

In a later update, municipal officials said the fire also destroyed a school that was under construction in the neighbourhood of North Parsons but managed to save the water treatment plant in the area.

Communities evacuated

Some residents only narrowly escaped.

Oilsands worker Victor Howald, who works night shifts, woke up around 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday and found “a ghost town.”

"It was just raining ashes and you can't see,” he said. “You couldn't see anything. There was only police cars and sirens going around trying to clear people out.”

Howlad said he didn’t have enough fuel to get out of town, so he walked until eventually a stranger pulled over and offered him a ride out of town.

Eventually he made his way to an evacuation centre in Edmonton, one of eight set up in the province.

"It was just crazy,” he said. “There were people pulled over in ditches, thousands of pickups without fuel.”

"It felt like the apocalypse.”

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With files from The Canadian Press, CTV Alberta Bureau Chief Janet Dirks and CTV Edmonton