FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (CNN)– Cameron Spring had 30 minutes to pack up a lifetime of memories from the house he grew up in.
The raging wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, raced toward his home, swallowing everything in its path.
“We had next to no warning,” the 27-year-old said. “I was able to grab some clothes, toiletries, a hard drive and laptop, passport and my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu belt.”
Spring escaped just in time. His entire neighborhood of over 100 homes burned to the ground.
“Absolutely everything was leveled,” he said. The only things left standing: burnt trees, a light post and a few chimneys.
But Spring doesn’t have time to think about losing his home. He’s also the safety and operations director at Phoenix Heli-Flight, which is busy evacuating hospital patients and helping firefighters by dropping water from the sky.
“It’s not difficult at all to keep working and not think of it,” he said. “Just knowing that everything we lost is replaceable is comforting.”
1,600 homes destroyed
The mammoth inferno, which started Sunday, has torched at least 1,600 homes, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said.
It’s also scorched more than 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) of land — twice the size of Manhattan.
Authorities ordered more than 88,000 people to evacuate — including the entire city of Fort McMurray.
But not everyone would leave, Spring said.
“We took a lot of women and children” in helicopters, he said. “A lot of the husbands, they wanted to stay. … A lot of them built their houses themselves. That’s the spirit up here.”
If the fire got too close, they reasoned, the men would try to flee on their boats on the Clearwater River, Spring said.
On the run again
But many who heeded the evacuation orders had to flee a second time as the unpredictable fire headed toward an emergency shelter in Anzac.
Donna Guillamot was one of tens of thousands evacuated from the Fort McMurray area to Anzac this week.
“I thought it was safe here, so I guess we’ll go to Edmonton,” Guillamot told CBC News. “Now you’re sitting here and all you see is red flames. It’s pretty scary.”
Edmonton, the capital of Alberta province, is almost 270 miles away.
It’s not clear when the evacuees will be able to go home — or if they will have any home to go back to.
“The whole community is going to be devastated,” Fort McMurray Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen said. “This is going to go on, this is going to take us a while to come back from.”
‘We’re doing the best we can’
As some evacuees took buses to the next shelter, the encroaching flames forced emergency officials to move their make-shift operations center again.
“We’re evacuating … and heading to Lac La Biche to reset,” the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo tweeted Thursday.
“Please be patient with updates — just evacuated almost 900 people and drove 2.5 hours, we’re doing the best we can.”
Help, challenges on the way
While the dangerous mix of extreme temperatures and bone-dry conditions helped spread the blaze, relief may be on the way.
“Conditions are set to improve over the next couple of days,” CNN meteorologist Judson Jones said.
Temperatures that soared to 32.6 Celsius (90.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday will drop to the low 20s C (60s F) by Friday — giving firefighters a hand in combating the blaze, Jones said.
The main challenge ahead: fierce winds gusting in different directions.
“If it’s constantly changing direction in different ways, it’s hard to control a fire,” Jones said.
‘Quite an amazing effort’
Spring, who lost his own home but is still fighting the fire, said he’s amazed by the generosity of strangers from all over Alberta province.
The wildfire destroyed gas stations, leaving many drivers and evacuees stranded. So fellow Canadians drove up a clogged highway, giving away gas, food and water.
“That’s the most emotional part of it — everyone else coming to help you,” he said. “It gives you hope … not everything’s going to be bad.”