Thousands of people trapped in isolated oilfield work camps north of Fort McMurray, Alta., were airlifted to major cities on Thursday, and the province is planning to allow police-escorted convoys of vehicles to pass southbound through the fire-gutted city, starting on Friday morning.

“Since this morning, we’ve been able to have roughly 4,000 people evacuated from the north of the city down to either Edmonton or Calgary,” Premier Rachel Notley told reporters at a briefing Thursday night. “This has been done primarily through the work of industry, bringing in WestJet flights,” she said. Notley added that she hoped 8,000 in total would be evacuated to the cities by the end of the day, with more expected to be flown out Friday.

About two-thirds of Fort McMurray’s 80,000 residents fled south after the mandatory evacuation orders were issued earlier this week. However, about 25,000 went north to oilfield camps, where there is limited food and gasoline.

The only road out of the camps, Highway 63, runs right through Fort McMurray. It remains closed.

Just hours before Notley spoke, RCMP Sgt. Jack Poitras told reporters that the fire was once again jumping the highway, as flames moved south from Fort McMurray toward the community of Anzac.

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Fire Chief Darby Allen issued a video on social media late Thursday night to reassure residents of the work being done to save their homes and property.

"We're still here, we're still battling," he 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.

"The beast is still up, it's surrounding the city, and we're here doing our very best for you."

Chad Morrison, a manager with Alberta Wildfire Prevention and Enforcement, told reporters Thursday evening that the fires around Fort McMurray had burned through an area of about 850 square kilometres. That’s roughly the size of the city of Calgary. He said there were roughly 40 fires still burning, including one that was about three kilometres from Anzac, which was evacuated late Wednesday, along with Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation.

Morrison said that flame-spreading winds are expected to “calm down” Friday, but “with a few more hot dry days ahead of us … we’re not out of the woods yet.”

There isn’t any rain in the weather forecast until Sunday.

Notley said she could not offer an update on the number of houses that had been destroyed. She did, however, say that the fire’s “rate of growth” had “slowed,” with firefighters making progress in protecting the Thickwood and Timberlea neighbourhoods, along with the downtown.

A day earlier, she had said an estimated 1,600 structures had been affected.

‘Not a matter of days’

Premier Notley said that it is not possible to offer a timeline on when residents will be able to return home. However she said: “Unfortunately, we do know that it will not be a matter of days.”

Notley said evacuated residents will be given opportunities to visit their homes to assess damage and collect valuables “once it is safe to do so.” She warned residents that they must not return now, adding “The city is not safe.”

“I understand that the Albertans who are affected by this tragedy are scared, and very tired, and very worried about their homes, and what the future holds for them and their families,” she added. “Trust us, that we will have your back.”

Notley said “additional financial supports will be made available to ensure that affected Albertans have the resources and income supports that they need,” and that a “cash card option” is being discussed.

The premier encouraged Fort McMurray residents to re-locate to Edmonton or Calgary, where she said there are more services in place and schools available that can make room for displaced students immediately.

Notley stressed that those who have been evacuated should notify the provincial government by visiting or by contacting the Red Cross, even if they are not planning to use emergency shelters.

“We need more information about who has been evacuated, where they are and what supports you require,” she said.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson told CTV’s Power Play that about 20,000 people had arrived in the provincial capital already, with about 6,000 more expected by the end of the day.

Only a few thousand had registered with the city’s emergency reception centre, he said. Most are staying with friends, relatives or in hotels, he added. Many others are in the communities of Lac La Biche and Calgary.

‘A few stragglers’

Sgt. Poitras told reporters that RCMP officers had stayed in the nearly-abandoned city to make sure everyone had heeded the mandatory evacuation order.

He said police continued to find “stragglers” as late as 10 or 11 p.m. on Wednesday, and they were escorted out of town.

There were no reports of looting, he said.

Province-wide fire ban in place

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips announced Thursday that a province-wide ban on fires had been put in place, noting “extreme" risk and fears that strained resources could be pulled away from the fight in Fort McMurray.

Phillips also said she wants Albertans to avoid off-highway vehicle use, noting that recreational vehicles have sparked fires in the past. She also asked residents to reconsider their plans for the weekend, and to be extra cautious if they choose to use camping stoves.

Federal Response

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday morning that the federal government will match all individual donations to Red Cross relief efforts for Fort McMurray. "We will make it through this most difficult time together," Trudeau said in the House of Commons.

Alberta had said Wednesday that it too would match donations.

Looking visibly distraught, interim Official Opposition leader Rona Ambrose thanked Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale for their efforts to help her home province.

"It's a tough day for Albertans but we will persevere," said Ambrose, who represents the riding of Sturgeon River-Parkland. She vowed that the Conservatives will support Trudeau "every step of the way" in taking practical steps to help Fort McMurray. She also urged the government to make Fort McMurray a priority in its infrastructure spending plans, as the city will need to rebuild its streets and community centres after the flames are put out.

Ambrose started to choke up as she spoke, prompting Trudeau to cross the floor and to give her a hug.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair urged the federal government to move quickly in providing employment insurance for Fort McMurray evacuees. He also hailed the evacuees for their "stoic, strong and poised response" to the crisis.

On Wednesday, Minister 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.”

He told CTV’s Power Play Thursday that the federal government had given Alberta “everything it had asked for,” including military planes, cots and bedding, and geomatics support.

Wildrose leader’s home burned

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 on Wednesday. “All my stuff, all my memories. I lost a son last year…” he said.

He added that the "best news" about the fire is there have been no lives lost. "That's what we've got to concentrate on now," he said.

Jean, who leads the Wildrose Party, later told CTV’s Power Play 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.

Worst-affected neighbourhoods

In an update sent out on Wednesday afternoon, officials said 90 per cent of Fort McMurray's Waterways neighbourhood has been destroyed, while 70 per cent of Beacon Hill has burned and 50 per cent of the homes in the Abasand neighbourhood are gone.

Communities evacuated

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With files from Josh Elliott, The Canadian Press, CTV Alberta Bureau Chief Janet Dirks, Toronto Bureau Reporter Peter Akman, CTV National News Bureau Chief Jill Macychon and CTV Edmonton