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Fort McMurray wildfire: evacuation order lifted for some work camps north of the community

Fire officials in Alberta are hoping cooler temperatures and some rain this weekend will enable them to hold the Fort McMurray wildfire in place. While it’s not a lot, the Fort McMurray region received two millimetres of rain overnight Friday and into Saturday morning.

Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted Friday night for a number of work camp sites in Alberta’s oilsands near Fort McMurray, according to a tweet from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The tweet appeared shortly before 11:30 p.m. and said the mandatory evacuation order had been lifted for Millennium Camp, Borealis Camp, Hudson Camp, Noralta Camp, Ruth Lake Camp, Suncor Base Plant and Syncrude Mildred Lake Plant. Officials said the orders were lifted because “conditions have improved in areas north of Fort McMurray.”

A number of the camps were put under an evacuation order on Monday when the wildfire began behaving unpredictably again and shifting winds were considered a threat to the camps.

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Fire Status

The wildfire burning near Fort McMurray shrunk slightly between Thursday and Friday, from 505,645 to 503,671 hectares as cooler temperatures and rain moved into the region.

“Cooler, damper conditions” have improved both the firefighting situation and the air quality, Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said.

As of Saturday afternoon, the wildfire covered about 504,443 hectares, including 741 hectares in Saskatchewan.

The air quality remained at a six out of 10 in Fort McMurray Friday morning and Chad Morrison with Alberta Wildfire said the blaze was being held at just over half a million hectares.

“From a firefighting perspective, we expect to hold this fire over the weekend,” Morrison added. “These are great firefighting days for us.”

He said while there hasn’t been significant rain on the fire itself, the area has seen cooler weather.

Fort McMurray wildfire: No significant rain has fallen on the fire yet

WATCH: Chad Morrison with Alberta Wildfire said Friday that so far, there has not been significant rainfall on the massive wildfire which devastated Fort McMurray and still continues to burn.

Fort McMurray wildfire: No significant rain has fallen on the fire yet
Fort McMurray wildfire: No significant rain has fallen on the fire yet

Morrison said crews have been able to strengthen the “dozer line” (a barrier created by bulldozers), the helicopters have been very effective and it’s now safer for firefighters to secure the fire perimeter and extinguish hot spots.

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“As every day goes by we continue to run this thing down and continue to secure it,” Morrison said.

Morrison also said an additional 500 firefighters will be brought in next week. The week after that, another 500 are expected.

The crews will come from other parts of Alberta, Canada and, if still required, international partners.

“We’ve had great offers and great support from our international partners,” Morrison said.

WATCH: Alberta Wildfire manager Chad Morrison said an additional 500 firefighters will be brought in next week. The week after that, another 500 are expected.

Fort McMurray wildfire: 1,000 firefighters to be brought in
Fort McMurray wildfire: 1,000 firefighters to be brought in

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire nearly as big as PEI, crosses Saskatchewan border

The fire grew to the size of Prince Edward Island on Thursday. The area burned by the Fort McMurray wildfire is bigger than the entire area burned in all of last year’s wildfire season, Alberta Wildfire’s Chad Morrison said. The fire continued to spread northeast, away from the oilsands facilities and into remote forested areas.

The fire crossed the Saskatchewan border on Thursday, burning about 700 hectares northeast of Gordon Lake. It’s still about 30 kilometres away from La Loche, the nearest Saskatchewan community.

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Officials said there was no direct threat from the flames, in part because of the lake next to the village and because last year’s fires mean there’s less brush and trees to burn. Smoke was seen as a bigger concern in nearby La Loche.

Oilsands sites

Morrison said industrial firefighters were working alongside woodland firefighters to continue to secure borders around oilsands facilities and camps.

He said there have been “no further impacts on the city, industrial facilities, or camps.”

A mandatory evacuation order remained in place for the Suncor and Syncrude sites. However, as fire guards around those sites continue to be enforced, Morrison remains hopeful.

“We continue to have firefighters deployed around the oilsands,” he said. “We feel that given current conditions… the sites at this time – there’s no immediate threat.”

“Actually, that will be one of the safest places to be,” he added.

Restoration work:

Within the City of Fort McMurray, ATCO has restarted work on restoring power.

“They have re-evaluated and triple checked,” Schreiber said. “They will pick up where they left off in areas where it is absolutely safe to do so.”

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Meanwhile, workers are trying to re-establish water access in the community, flushing and repairing lines.

“There will be non-potable water available for re-entry on the 1st of June…but we’re recommending people bring potable water with them when they return.”

Schreiber added the boil water advisory will likely remain until the middle of June.

Work continues to restore electricity, gas power, water and sewage systems. Gas has been restored to about 75 per cent of Fort McMurray. Electricity has been restored to more than 90 per cent of the city.

The vehicle retrieval process continued Friday.

“Highway 63 is open but controlled and subject to periodic closures,” Schrieber said.

WATCH: Fort McMurray wildfire update: Air quality, highway closures, and return dates for evacuees

Fort McMurray wildfire update: Air quality, highway closures, and return dates for evacuees
Fort McMurray wildfire update: Air quality, highway closures, and return dates for evacuees

Air quality:

Alberta Health Services’ Chief Medical Officer of Health wants to see consistent conditions before residents are allowed back into Fort McMurray.

“At this point, we’re working on what that number should look like,” Dr. Karen Grimsrud said. She said the decision should be made based on the air quality health index and the long-term weather forecast.

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She stressed the June 1 re-entry date is conditional on a number of basic factors, including that air quality is acceptable.

“There have been extreme fluctuations in air quality… Not only in Fort McMurray,” Grimsrud said.

In the city, air quality has varied, “at times reaching near-record levels and at times reaching low levels,” she said.

AHS said anyone with respiratory issues like asthma, COPD, pregnant women or those over 65 years old should not return to the community on June 1.

An air quality advisory was reinstated in Edmonton Thursday afternoon as heavy smoke from the northern Alberta wildfires was blown into the region.

READ MORE: AHS reinstates air quality advisory as smoke drifts into Capital Region

Support for evacuees:

The province has so far distributed more than 35,000 pre-loaded debit cards to Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees, totalling $75 million.

READ MORE: Man accused of using fake ID to get Fort McMurray wildfire funds

For those displaced by mandatory evacuation orders (Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation), the province announced the Wildfire Evacuee Transitional Accommodation Benefit.

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The government will provide short-term funding for eligible evacuees who do not have insurance or have insufficient insurance to pay for temporary accommodations.

Applicants must be registered with the Red Cross and be establishing a temporary residence within Alberta. Evacuees can apply by calling 310-4455 or in person at Alberta Works offices.

Wildfire Evacuee Transitional Accommodation Benefit by Anonymous QRCBjQd5I7

With files from Karen Bartko, Global News