Fort McMurray wildfire: Oilsands work camp destroyed as flames threaten other sites

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire puts Noralta Lodge at risk'
Fort McMurray wildfire puts Noralta Lodge at risk
WATCH ABOVE: Staff at the Noralta Lodge worked to keep the Fort McMurray wildfire from reaching their facility Tuesday afternoon. This video was provided by Stan Laurent with Fort MacKay Enterprises – May 17, 2016

An oilsands work camp north of Fort McMurray was destroyed by a wildfire that continues to ravage the region. Three other work camps, which provide lodging for Alberta oilsands workers, were at risk due to the wildfire that, as of Tuesday morning, measured 355,000 hectares in size.

The Blacksand Executive Lodge, which provides accommodations to oilsands workers north of Fort McMurray, was destroyed by fire, Notley confirmed Tuesday. About 665 units were lost in the blaze.

“Horizon North’s top priority is the safety of our guests and employees,” Rod Graham, president and CEO of Horizon North, said. “We safely evacuated Blacksand Executive Lodge as per our Emergency Response Plan and every guest and staff member is safe and accounted for.”

“The facilities have been evacuated safely,” Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said.

“If we lost 665 bed spaces, then it can be rebuilt. The key is that they were all safely evacuated yesterday.”

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Officials with the Blacksand Executive Lodge confirmed the validity of this photo showing the accommodations in flames May 16, 2016. Credit: Facebook/ Fort McMurray Evac Relocation Help Group
Officials with the Blacksand Executive Lodge confirmed the validity of this photo showing the accommodations in flames May 16, 2016. Credit: Facebook/ Fort McMurray Evac Relocation Help Group

Tuesday afternoon, flames made their way closer to the Noralta Lodge, which s located about 15 kilometres south of Fort MacKay on Austra Road. However, the lodge took to Twitter at around 2:30 p.m. to say the village was not currently on fire.

Mandatory evacuation orders issued for camps north of Fort McMurray

Notley said Tuesday the Noralta Lodge and Birch Creek camps were at risk Tuesday as the wind was set to push the fire towards the facilities.

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Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison said the Northland Sawmill site was also at risk. Sprinklers have been deployed on the Sawmill facility, he added.

The wind was also expected to push the fire towards the Suncor and Syncrude oilsands facilities Tuesday, but the province said both are highly resilient to fire.

READ MORE: Why experts say Alberta oilsands sites are considered resilient to wildfires

Watch below: The Fort McMurray wildfire’s spread is not just threatening homes but industry as well. On Tuesday, evacuated  work camps burned and fire came close to the all but abandoned oilsands mines. Fletcher Kent reports.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfire still growing, inching towards oilsands'
Alberta wildfire still growing, inching towards oilsands

Suncor continued to update employees of the situation on its Facebook page. Syncrude was informing people of the situation on Twitter.

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This comes as a mandatory evacuation order, issued Monday, remained in place Tuesday for all camps north of Fort McMurray to just south of Fort MacKay. (See full list below). 

Watch below: Video footage shows workers leaving northern Alberta camps near Fort McMurray and evacuating farther north

Click to play video: 'Northern Alberta camps being evacuated due to wildfire smoke'
Northern Alberta camps being evacuated due to wildfire smoke

About 8,000 workers were affected, with roughly 6,000 people heading farther north and about 2,000 heading south.

READ MORE: Oil worker nervous as Fort McMurray wildfire moves north

Questions were raised about the safety of the workers who were forced north Monday night, but the province maintained it has been in close conversation with oilsands companies to ensure everyone’s safety.

“They have quite the capacity to move people through air,” Long said.

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“As it stands now, those northern camps are not under threat and we do have time to conduct an orderly evacuation.”

Watch below: Premier Notley, wildfire officials update the Fort McMurray wildfire status Tuesday morning

Notley said Highway 63 was not open for workers to safely evacuate by ground to the south. As of Tuesday afternoon, Highway 63 from the Parson’s Creek interchange to the Suncor interchange remained closed north and southbound.

“That’s the big issue right now,” she said. “With the fire moving towards the east, Highway 63 is very likely to be threatened at some point today.”

Watch below: Can oilsands facilities catch fire? Officials explain

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire: Can the oilsands catch fire?'
Fort McMurray wildfire: Can the oilsands catch fire?

The camps under mandatory evacuation order, as of 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, include:

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  • Syncrude Facilities South of Fort MacKay
  • Suncor Facilities South of Fort MacKay
  • Millennium
  • Borealis
  • Hudson
  • Ruth Lake
  • Mildred Lake
  • West Ells
  • Baseline
  • MacKay River
  • Black Sands Lodge
  • Brion Energy – MacKay
  • Grizzly Oilsands – Thickwood
  • MacKay River Lodge on Aostra
  • Marathon Oil – Birchwood
  • Noralta
  • Poplar Creek – also called Birch
  • Southern Pacific – STP MacKay
  • Sunshine Oil Sands – West Ells

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Mandatory evacuation order expands to just south of Fort MacKay

Two separate explosions in Fort McMurray Monday night

A house explosion in a residential Fort McMurray neighbourhood badly damaged seven homes on Dickins Drive Monday night.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo originally said the explosion happened in a home on McConachie Crescent in the Dickinsfield neighbourhood. On Tuesday evening, officials tweeted out that in fact the explosion occurred at a home on Clenell Crescent and not on McConachie Crescent. Clenell Crescent is also located in Dickinsfield.

In a separate incident, a fire in the Thickwood neighbourhood destroyed a fourplex. Three other units across from Father Mercredi High School were involved in the incident at Silin Forest Road.

Thickwood is located north of the Athabasca River, south of the Timberlea neighbourhood.

Premier Rachel Notley said roughly 10 homes were damaged in the explosion and fire. The cause of both is under investigation.

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Watch below: There’s new concerns tonight over how safe it is inside Fort McMurray. Two incidents have forced government officials to slightly change direction on when residents will go home following a catastrophic wildfire. Julia Wong has the latest.

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray explosions prompt questions over safety of community'
Fort McMurray explosions prompt questions over safety of community

“These fires were swiftly controlled and put out promptly,” Notley said, adding this is a prime example of why it’s not safe for residents to return to Fort McMurray. “We have to make sure that these other hazards are addressed.”

On Tuesday night, Wood Buffalo officials tweeted both areas “are no long under immediate threat.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire’s return stalls Alberta oilsands recovery

Notley said the explosions have caused the province to take a second look at its re-entry plans. However, she hoped to have more information on re-entry available by the end of the week.

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“It just highlights the uncertainty with the challenges of re-entry planning,” Long said.

“Part of the challenge is we’re not going into anyone’s homes at all. So what caused it, how it came about is unknown. It could have been a number of factors, that’s why I say it’s under investigation.”

Scott said gas has successfully been restored to about 60 per cent of the community.

ATCO said it has “proactively halted work on the restoration of the natural gas system until the results of the investigation are known,” VP of communications Carson Ackroyd said.  ATCO also has a team on site helping in the investigation to determine the cause.

Watch below: Two house explosions in residential Fort McMurray neighbourhoods badly damaged homes Monday night

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire: Several homes damaged in explosions in Dickinsfield, Thickwood'
Fort McMurray wildfire: Several homes damaged in explosions in Dickinsfield, Thickwood

Fire size and habit

As of Tuesday morning, the Fort McMurray wildfire was about 355,000 hectares in size, that’s up from about 285,000 hectares Monday.

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“That represents significant growth,” Notley said.”Mother Nature continues to be our foe… Not our friend.”

“We don’t see any relief at this point until we see some rain in the forecast,” Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison added.

The fire remained about 10 to 12 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border, and it was expected to reach the border by Tuesday afternoon or evening.

Alberta Wildfire said strong winds Monday caused growth on the outer edges of the fire, which is where fire crews were focusing their efforts Tuesday.

Hot, dry, windy conditions were set to challenge firefighters again Tuesday. The wind was expected to push the fire towards the east. The province said efforts within Fort McMurray would be focused on protecting the Parsons Creek, Thickwood and Timberlea neighbourhoods.

Morrison said because much of the areas around the neighbourhoods have already been burned by the fire, it works as a fire guard. Crews have also been working over the past week to create fire guards

“We have everybody deployed in those neighbourhoods, as well as we have very good fire guards built with dozers in the area,” Morrison said. “Our number one priority right now is that we maintain and protect the community of Fort McMurray.”

About 1,000 firefighters, 200 pieces of heavy equipment, 47 helicopters and 29 air tankers are currently battling the Fort McMurray wildfire.

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Air quality

By Tuesday, the air quality level had dropped to 13 in the Fort McMurray region, but continued to be a major concern for those working to restore the community.

On Monday, the air quality level was 38 on a scale of one to 10 – with 10 being considered extreme.

“This poses a serious risk for first responders and recovery workers in the area,” Notley said. “It has the potential to stall recovery efforts and we’re seeing a bit of that already.”

READ MORE: ‘Extreme’ air quality conditions in Fort McMurray could delay re-entry plans

Notley said the province had hoped to get retail workers into Fort McMurray to begin to restore grocery stores and pharmacies, but that plan has been put on hold.

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Additionally, the 400 people who were working to get the Fort McMurray hospital up and running were forced to evacuate due to the air quality.

“We’re hoping that they can start coming back to carry on that work soon,” Notley said.

Restoring Fort McMurray

Gas had successfully been restored to about 60 per cent of Fort McMurray as of Tuesday morning. However, when the fire flared up west of Fort McMurray Monday, ATCO staff were evacuated to Mariana Lakes and their work was delayed.

Notley said electricity service has been restored to most of the undamaged areas of the community, and to all areas of Anzac and the Fort McMurray First Nation.

Structural damage assessments of homes and other buildings are nearly complete. All but seven structures have been assessed and Notley expected the work to be completed Tuesday.

About 89 per cent of structures inspected have been deemed safe to occupy. Ten per cent of structures have been destroyed and about one per cent needed a closer look, Notley explained.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Officials initially said on Tuesday that there were two explosions inside Fort McMurray Monday night. On Wednesday, the premier clarified there was just one explosion.

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