Canada wildfire explodes in size

People wait at a roadblock as smoke rises from wildfires near Fort McMurrayA raging Canadian wildfire grew explosively on Saturday as hot, dry winds pushed the blaze across the energy heartland of Alberta and smoke forced the shutdown of a major oil sands project.

The fire that has already prompted the evacuation of all 88,000 people who lived the city of Fort McMurray was set to double in size on Saturday, the seventh day of what is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history.

Provincial officials praised evacuees for their patience and, in a sign of how long the crisis could drag on, said the cities of Calgary and Edmonton, many hundreds of miles to the south, were the best place to receive longer-term support such as medical care and emergency payments.

Alberta’s Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said the fire was still out of control and warned residents not to try to return.

“I know … how very hard it is to be patient and how difficult it is not to know so many things. I know what it’s like to wonder what is left from your home,” she told a briefing in the provincial capital Edmonton.

Firefighting officials said the inferno, pushed northeast towards neighboring Saskatchewan by high winds and fueled by tinder-dry forests, was set to double in size to 300,000 hectares by the end of Saturday.

Cooler weather forecast for Sunday could then help keep the blaze under control, said Chad Morrison, manager of Alberta’s wildfire prevention, predicting that without substantial rain the fire might easily last for months.

The full extent of property losses in Fort McMurray has yet to be determined, but one analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion).

More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers, the Alberta government said.

Within Fort McMurray, visibility is often less than 30 feet (9 meters) due to the smoke, making it still very dangerous to circulate in the city, said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Firefighter Adam Bugden said he and his colleagues were working up to 36 hours at a time without sleep.

“We all have busted-up feet and hands … we’re hauling hose, we’re going up and down hills, we’re fighting 40-feet flames,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Syncrude oil sands project said it would shut down its northern Alberta operation and remove all personnel from the site due to smoke. There was no imminent threat from the fire.

Officials said the fire could burn to the edge of a project operated by Suncor Energy Inc, but noted the site was highly resilient to fire damage.

At least 10 oil sand operators have cut production due to evacuations and other emergency measures. [CRU/CA]

About half of Canada’s oil sands production capacity, or one million barrels per day (bpd), had been taken offline as of Friday, according to a Reuters estimate.

Police escorted another convoy of evacuees out of the oil sands region north of Fort McMurray on Saturday, on a harrowing journey through burned-out parts of the city and billowing smoke.

Around 25,000 residents who initially went north found themselves cut off in overcrowded conditions. Larivee said she hoped the entire group would have moved south by the end of Saturday. (Courtesy Reuters)

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