Thousands of people managed to escape in a police-escorted convoy of vehicles from oil patch work camps north of Fort McMurray on Friday, despite thick smoke enveloping the city from a still raging fire that could double in size on Saturday.

Alberta’s Senior Wildlife Manager Chad Morrison told reporters Friday that the fire now covers 1,010 kilometres, and that there is “a high potential this fire could double in size by end of day tomorrow.”

Morrison said it is too soon to know whether rain and cooler conditions being forecast for Sunday will help the hundreds of firefighters trying to put an end to the blaze.

"Even once we get rain, there's still going to be a lot of fire out there and a lot of work,” he said. “We're going to be here for weeks and weeks.”

The good news, according to Morrison, is that winds are pushing the flames into uninhabited areas, rather than into Fort McMurray or Anzac. Morrison said 18 to 20 structures appear affected in Anzac. He did not offer an update on the number of structures damaged or destroyed in Fort McMurray, which Premier Rachel Notley estimated at 1,600 on Wednesday.

Fort McMurray's downtown area remains largely intact, and several key infrastructure buildings have been preserved, including the hospital and airport, Notley said on Friday. She added that firefighters have been able to "hold the line," in the city's residential areas.

Notley announced a plan to hand out $1,250 per adult evacuee and $500 per dependent to assist with their immediate needs. She stressed that all evacuees should register with the Red Cross.

Although the city of roughly 80,000 is nearly empty, hundreds of RCMP officers are patrolling and forcing stragglers to leave. Police said Friday night that local man was tracked down and arrested after a break and enter, but there were no other reports of looting.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee told reporters Friday that in addition to a province-wide fire plan put in place Thursday, Alberta has banned all off-highway recreational vehicle use on public lands. Larivee said there are exceptions to the ban, including agriculture and some First Nations uses.

Larivee also said that the convoys down Highway 63 – the only road connecting the far-north community to the rest of the province -- had allowed at least 1,200 vehicles full of people trapped north of the city to go south, where there are more supplies and services.

An estimated 25,000 of Fort McMurray’s more than 80,000 residents became trapped in oilfield work camps north of the city after it was evacuated earlier this week. The only road out of the work camps – Highway 63 – runs right through the fire-ravaged city.

Larivee said the convoys were “temporarily” halted at one point due to “heavy smoke” but had resumed by about 2 p.m. Friday.

They were halted for the night around sundown, according to the RCMP.

Earlier in the day, RCMP had estimated that 1,500 vehicles had lined up in hopes of going south.

In addition to the convoy, officials are using commercial aircraft to move an estimated 16,500 from airstrips at the northern camps to Edmonton or Alberta. The flights started Thursday and were expected to continue on Saturday.

‘Couldn’t see the taillights in front of me’

Tia MacKenzie said she and her partner debated whether to abandon their vehicles and possessions and take the flights, but they opted instead to line up Thursday evening at 6 p.m. so they could be part of the convoy at dawn.

“Our kids slept through the whole thing so they weren’t exposed,” she said of the drive through Fort McMurray Friday morning. “The smoke was unbelievable.”

Another man who drove through the charred city on Friday said the smoke was so thick near the Timberlea neighbourhood that he thought police were going to force him to turn back north. “I couldn’t see the taillights in front of me,” he told CTV Edmonton.

One woman from the first convoy posted video of the trip south on Facebook.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said Friday night that 1,800 cots had been assigned in the city’s emergency shelter, and that the shelter was prepared to take up to 4,400 people.

“Wherever possible, if people have other accommodations and they can avoid coming here, that’s helpful,” he said.

Iveson said the city is trying to determine how much empty housing is available in the city, for those who end up staying long-term.

“Thankfully there’s some vacancy in the marketplace,” he said, adding that some landlords are generously offering several months of free or deeply-discounted rent.

Standing beside Premier Notley, Iveson said he is working closely with the province. “We look forward to the federal government joining the response as well,” he added, “because this is going to need everybody.”

Federal government response

The Red Cross announced on Friday that Canadians have donated more than $30 million to relief efforts for Fort McMurray. The federal government and the province have pledged to match all donations to the Red Cross during the crisis.

The Alberta government has also pledged $100 million in payouts for those who have been forced from their homes, to help them in the days ahead.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his office has been in "constant contact" with Notley's office throughout the crisis.

Firefighters worked through the night to protect Fort McMurray's infrastructure buildings and homes, and to open up the north-south route through the city, along Highway 63.

In a video message posted on Wood Buffalo's Twitter account late Thursday, Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen assured the city's residents that his team is working hard to save their homes.

"Things have calmed down in the city a little bit, but guys are out as we speak fighting fires, trying to protect your property," Allen said. "The beast is still up, it's surrounding the city, and we're here doing our very best for you."

Several neighbourhoods have been almost completely destroyed, with the Waterways, Beacon Hill and Abasand neighbourhoods among the hardest-hit.

With files from CTV News reporter Breanna Karstens-Smith, Winnipeg Bureau Chief Jill Macyshon, Toronto Bureau Reporter Peter Akman, writer Josh Elliott and The Canadian Press