Fort McMurray wildfire grows to 423K hectares

Paul Haysom, Global News

Plans for re-entry

Premier Rachel Notley announced Wednesday that the voluntary, phased re-entry into Fort McMurray would begin June 1 and would be completed by June 15, as long as five safety conditions were met.

“The re-entry timelines we’re working with are very ambitious,” she said. “We are making our decisions based on the best advice from the most informed and dedicated officials.”

READ MORE: Phased re-entry into Fort McMurray after wildfire to begin June 1

Wednesday fire growth

The northern Alberta fire previously dubbed a “beast” grew by about 20 per cent overnight, from covering about 355,000 hectares to 423,000.

Despite the rapid growth, wildfire officials said Wednesday there is no need to bring back the military. Strong winds from the west helped push the fire back to areas that were previously burned. The province said the fire did not cross the highway.

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While the massive wildfire hasn’t reached Saskatchewan, it is only about five kilometres from the provincial border and about 30 kilometres from the community of La Loche. Emergency management commissioner Duane McKay says the fire is burning fairly intensely, but is not moving rapidly. However, McKay cautions the fire is very large and has a mind of its own in terms of where it wants to go.

A cache of firefighting equipment is being established in Buffalo Narrows, about 100 kilometres east of La Loche, in case it needs to be quickly deployed. Environment officials say fire guards are in place around La Loche and that fires in the area last summer will also help because there’s less brush and trees that could burn.

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

The Saskatchewan government said it believes the blaze that began around Fort McMurray more than two weeks ago will reach the boundary, based on current wind and weather conditions.

Officials can’t predict when that will happen, but they note that the flames would still be more than 40 kilometres from any community and many lakes and swamps stand in its way.

There is some good news: four days of rain and cooler temperatures are in the forecast, starting tomorrow.

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Camp evacuations

Earlier this week the fire carved a new path of destruction, destroying an oilsands work camp to the north and forcing reconstruction staff out of the evacuated city on Tuesday.

The fires forced about 8,000 oilsands workers lodged in a number of camps to flee. Most went north but some headed south. On Tuesday morning, Premier Rachel Notley confirmed the blaze destroyed Blacksand’s 655-unit work camp and was threatening two others.

Rod Graham, president of Horizon North, which owns the levelled Blacksand Executive Lodge, said the facility was fully insured and could be rebuilt in about six months.

On Wednesday morning, one of the threatened camps, Noralta Lodge, reported on Facebook that the fire was being held off the village site and there was no structural damage, but the facility was still considered at risk.

Watch below: Staff at the Noralta Lodge worked to keep the Fort McMurray wildfire from reaching their facility Tuesday afternoon

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire puts Noralta Lodge at risk' Fort McMurray wildfire puts Noralta Lodge at risk
Fort McMurray wildfire puts Noralta Lodge at risk – May 17, 2016

A Noralta tweet said crews stayed overnight to keep the fire under control.

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“The fire has burned some of the vegetation around some of the oilsands facilities, as expected,” Chad Morrison, Alberta Wildfire manager, said Wednesday. He said crews were able to “hold the line” around Noralta Lodge and some of the other nearby camps.

Morrison was confident they would be able to continue to establish a good fire guard around the camps in the days ahead, especially with the potential for rain and cooler weather.

Scott Long with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said oilsands companies have their own industrial firefighters at oil sites as well as specialized equipment.

“On Syncrude, there are 78 personnel and Suncor, they have I believe 10 personnel… They’ve got foaming trucks, etc,” Long said. “If required, they will engage the use of that specialized equipment… The wildfire firefighters are holding the line.”

“They’ve got quite the perimeter of clear-cut there so there’s not a lot of fuel,” Long explained, referring to the area around oil sites cleared of trees.

Officials said they aren’t expecting serious harm to the oil-producing facilities themselves, because they have built-in buffer zones and are mainly made of non-flammable materials. Also, bitumen and tailings ponds don’t catch fire easily.

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

Boil water advisory

Alberta Health Services revised the boil water advisory in place for the Fort McMurray-area Wednesday after water test results:

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  • In Janvier and Conklin, the water supply is safe and does not require boiling. The boil water advisory was lifted.
  • In Fort MacKay and some camps: Fort MacKay residents do not need to boil water prior to using it. Area camps that get water from EPCOR or any provider other than the RM of Wood Buffalo Fort McMurray Water Treatment Plant do not need to boil water.
  • All other areas of Fort McMurray: the boil water advisory remains in effect for all other areas supplied by the RM of Wood Buffalo Fort McMurray Water Treatment Plant, including the City of Fort McMurray, the international airport, Saprae Creek and communities served by the regional line to Anzac and area, including Gregoire Lake Provincial Park and Gregoire Lake.

1 explosion, 1 fire in Fort McMurray

On top of the fire, the process of restoring natural gas was dealt a setback when there was an explosion and a fire Monday night.

An explosion occurred in the Dickinsfield neighbourhood. A home on Clenell Crescent blew up, destroying the house and damaging six others beside it.

In a separate nearby incident, a fire in the Cedarwoods neighbourhood of Thickwood destroyed a fourplex. Three other units on Silin Forest Road were involved.

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

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
Fort McMurray explosions prompt questions over safety of community – May 17, 2016

Scott Long, with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said the cause of the house explosions are under investigation.

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He said ATCO gas workers — who have turned gas on to about 60 per cent of the structures in Fort McMurray — have left the city due to the fire threat and will use the pause to determine what caused the blast.

About 400 people working around the clock to get the Fort McMurray hospital open again were also pulled out as a precaution.

The plan to get some retail business owners into the city early to ready essentials like grocery stores and pharmacies was also put on hold due to deteriorating air quality.

No layoffs

Syncrude CEO Mark Ward held a meeting with several hundred employees in Edmonton on Tuesday afternoon and assured them there would be no layoffs because of the fire situation, and everyone would continue being paid.

Suncor also told workers they would receive their normal pay on May 12, and their base salary on May 26.

Mark Little, executive vice-president of Suncor, issued a tweet to employees late Tuesday night assuring them that the fire was southwest of the facility “and we have protection strategies in place to safeguard our assets.”

He said emergency response teams were still on site at the company’s MacKay River, East Tank Farm and base plant facilities, while its Firebag location was on “hot standby with minimal staffing.” He said a strategy was in place to evacuate those people as necessary.

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With files from Dean Bennett and Chris Purdy, The Canadian Press.

Map Credit: Esri Canada

*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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