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Canadian officials hope to put 'death grip' on raging Fort McMurray fire
- Winds and favourable weather encourage those fighting massive blaze
- Fort McMurray evacuated but safe for workers as fire moves east
8 May, 2016
Cooler weather and light rains left Canadian officials hopeful that they could put a “death grip” on the blazing wildfire that has raged through northern Alberta, engulfing neighbourhoods and forcing the evacuation of an entire city.
“With a bit of help from Mother Nature, and a lot of help from some very dedicated first responders and firefighters, the Fort McMurray fire grew much more slowly than we had feared yesterday,” Rachel Notley, the Alberta premier, said on Sunday.
The fire had grown to around 161,000 hectares (398,000 acres), a significantly smaller size than the up to 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) predicted one day earlier.
Winds of up to 38mph continue to push the fire east, away from the Fort McMurray community. By Sunday, the fire was within about 22 miles (35km) of the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.
The estimated 25,000 people who were sent north of Fort McMurray during Tuesday’s frantic evacuation have now all been moved south, to cities far from the path of the fire and where support services can be better accessed, Notley said.
Concerns over heavy smoke had seen some 300 people evacuated from Fort McKay, a First Nations community north of Fort McMurray, and brought to Edmonton. Around 1,500 employees of the Syncrude oil sands were also evacuated on Saturday and the facility was shut down. Several other oil sands facilities evacuated some personnel.
Heavy smoke north of Fort McMurray forced firefighters and first responders out of the lodge where they had been staying and into the city of Fort McMurray, said Notley.
“It is good news that the city is now safe for first responders to be based out of,” she said.
Hot spots and flare-ups continue to pose a threat. But initial work to recover the city has now begun, with hundreds of workers in Fort McMurray to tackle restoring the power grid and assessing the gas infrastructure.
On Sunday, Notley also addressed “another important group of souls”, referring to reports of pets left behind during the evacuation.
“As soon as it was safe to do so, teams began going to locations where pets had been left behind to give them food and water,” she said. “They’ve also been keeping an eye out for animals in the streets.”
The premier expected to visit the city on Monday. “It is really too early to speculate on the extent and the nature of the damage,” she said.
While there were known no direct casualties from the wildfire, a 15-year-old daughter of a local firefighter and her 19-year-old male relative were killed in a crash during the city’s evacuation.
“Our hearts go out to their families,” said Notley, who remarked that Sunday was Mother’s Day in Canada. “I am hoping in all of this crisis to spend a few minutes today with my own children. That not all of us can do that is definitely an awful tragedy.”
As she spoke, she fought to hold back tears.
Temperatures in the region dropped to around 18C (64F) on Sunday and brought a slight sprinkling of rain, eliciting cheers from staff in the municipality’s emergency centre. Forecasts showed a 30% chance of showers on Sunday evening and overnight.
Such conditions were great news, said Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention.
“This is great firefighting weather,” he said. “We can really get in here and get a handle on this fire, and really get a death grip on it.”
Despite Saturday’s extreme conditions, firefighters were able to hold areas in Fort McMurray and the nearby community of Anzac, and keep the fire away from the Suncor Energy oil sands facility.
“We expect the fire to either hold or move away from these sites in the coming days,” said Morrison.
More than 500 firefighters, backed by 200 helicopters and 44 pieces of heavy equipment, continued to battle the blaze, with 27 air tankers available to assist.
The wildfire will likely still take months to put out, said Morrison, particularly if the region sees one or two more weeks of hot weather.
“This fire has had such extreme wildfire behaviour,” he said, including creating its own meteorological conditions, igniting four lightning fires and jumping across a mile-wide river at one point. Officials hope the fire will remain contained to the province’s forested areas, far from communities.
Morrison expected it would be at least one more week before the cause of the fire could be determined
The wildfire forced as much as half of Canada’s oil sands production capacity offline, according to estimates, and is expected to have a dramatic impact on a country already hobbling from the drop in the price of oil.
Notley said she would meet key players in the province’s energy sector on Tuesday. The Alberta oil sands rank among the world’s largest reserves of oil.
With tens of thousands of evacuees scattered across the province – many of them wondering if they have a home to return to – the fire has triggered an outpouring of generosity among Canadians. More than C$44m ($34m, £23.6m) has been donated to the Canadian Red Cross – all of which will be matched by the federal government.
Thousands of volunteers across the country have sought to ease the lives of evacuees – sorting warehouses stacked with donations of supplies, for instance, while former brides and bridal shops offered to provide a dress for a soon-to-be-wed evacuee who wasn’t able to pick up her own dress from the seamstress before being evacuated.
In Calgary, a group of Syrian refugees have been collecting donations to send to those who fled the fire.
“[Canadians] have given us everything,” the group’s Facebook page read, in Arabic. “Now it’s time to return the favour.”