Canada Getting Handle on Alberta Wildfire

Canada Getting Handle on Alberta WildfireCanada Getting Handle on Alberta Wildfire

Canadian officials showed some optimism on Sunday they were beginning to get on top of the country’s most destructive wildfire in recent memory, as favorable weather helped firefighters and winds took the flames southeast, away from oil sands boomtown Fort McMurray.

There was still no timeline, however, for getting Fort McMurray’s 88,000 inhabitants back into what remains of their town, or when energy companies would be able to restart operations at evacuated sites nearby. The wildfires have cut Canada’s vast oil sands output in half, Reuters reported.

“It definitely is a positive point for us, for sure,” said Alberta fire official, Chad Morrison, in a news briefing, when asked if the fight to contain the flames had reached a turning point.

“We’re obviously very happy that we’ve held the fire better than expected,” said Morrison. “This is great firefighting weather; we can really get in here and get a handle on this fire, and really get a death grip on it.”

The wildfire scorching through Canada’s oil sands region in northeast Alberta since last Sunday night had been expected to double in size on Sunday, threatening the neighboring province of Saskatchewan.

But with the fire moving into its second week, light rains and cooler temperatures helped hold it back, giving officials hope that they could soon begin assessing the damage to Fort McMurray, close to where the fire started.

“As more and more fire has burned out around the city and the fuel around the city starts to disappear ... we are starting to move into that second phase of securing the site and assessing the site,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told the same media briefing.

Officials said it was too early to put a timeline on getting people back into the town safely.

  Long Time to Clean Up

The broader wildfire, moving southeast through wooded areas away from the town, would still take a long time to “clean up”, Morrison cautioned. Officials previously warned that the fire could burn for months. Alberta’s government estimated on Sunday that the fire had consumed 161,000 hectares (395,000 acres). That was less than a previous estimate, but authorities warned the fire would likely grow overnight.

Fort McMurray is the center of Canada’s oil sands region. About half of the crude output from the sands, or 1 million barrels per day, has been taken offline, according to a Reuters estimate.

Oil prices jumped almost 2% in trading early on Monday, as Canada’s fire contributed to tightening supply.

The inferno looks set to become the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history. One analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion).

  Fort McMurray Still Off Limits

Even though the fire has largely pushed through Fort McMurray, the town is still too dangerous to enter.

Nearly all of Fort McMurray’s residents escaped the fire safely, although two people were killed in a car crash during the evacuation. The town’s 160 firefighters worked nearly non-stop in the first days of the fire, even as some of them lost their own homes, said fire captain Nick Waddington.

Thousands of evacuees are camped out in nearby towns but stand little chance of returning soon, even if their homes are intact. The city’s gas has been turned off, its power grid is damaged and the water is undrinkable. Provincial officials said displaced people would be better off driving to cities such as Calgary, 655 km to the south, where health and social services were better.

Officials said on Sunday that 34 wildfires were burning, with five out of control. There are more than 500 firefighters battling the blaze in and around Fort McMurray, with 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers.