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Why experts say Alberta oilsands sites are considered resilient to wildfires

Fort McMurray wildfire: Can the oilsands catch fire?
WATCH ABOVE: It remains unclear whether dangerous wildfires in northern Alberta have the potential to ignite working oilsands sites. No oilsands work sites set fire in 2011 when wildfires forced evacuations in Slave Lake.

CALGARY – Wildfires that ravaged some neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray and forced 80,000 to flee the city two weeks ago are now chewing through the wilderness further north, where major oilsands projects are located. A 665-unit work lodge has burned down and two more are under threat. But experts and officials say they aren’t expecting serious harm to the oil-producing facilities themselves. Here’s why:

There’s a built-in buffer zone:

Oilsands projects — whether they involve scooping the ore out of a mine or melting it underground with steam — are built in such a way that there’s a lot of empty space between facilities and forest. Unlike in residential neighbourhoods where there are a lot of trees and wooden, there’s little in the way of fuel at the industrial sites to feed the ravenous flames. “There’s an inherent built-in safety space around all these facilities,” said Robert Bedin, with RS Energy Group in Calgary. Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison told reporters that because vegetation has been cleared away and the ground is covered in gravel, “we feel fairly confident that the sites themselves will be OK.”

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Bitumen doesn’t catch fire easily:

Morrison battled wildfires in oilsands country in 2011. Burning bitumen, the product produced by the facilities, wasn’t an issue then and it’s not expected to be one this time either, he said. Bitumen has more in common with the crumbly asphalt than highly combustible gasoline, said Bedin. “It’s not volatile. It’s pretty benign. So in most scenarios I think we’re talking about, this stuff is not likely to ignite,” said Bedin. Fire needs oxygen to grow, and there’s no way for it to get into the oil-soaked sand and clay, said Raj Mehta, a professor of oil and gas engineering at the University of Calgary. “It will burn momentarily, but after that it will die.”

Ditto, tailings ponds:

Tailings ponds hold the waste product that’s left over from the oilsands extraction process — and they’re huge. The ponds contain used water, sand, clay and residual bitumen. But the amount of bitumen is too small to pose a danger, Mehta said. “I think that’s the biggest myth people worry about,” he said. “Lots of people think that this whole lake, huge lake, is going to catch fire — no. The answer is no.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Several homes damaged in explosions in Dickinsfield, Thickwood

The stuff that could catch fire or explode is mostly underground:

Oilsands projects rely heavily on natural gas to generate power for their plants and heat up the steam that’s used to liquefy the bitumen in some projects. They also need diluent, a very light petroleum product, to make the tarry oilsands crude thin enough to flow through pipelines. Both are products one would want to keep as far away as possible from the encroaching flames. Fortunately, the pipes that carry those substances are buried underground, Mehta said.

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