CBC NEWS: Fort McMurray fire spreads north and east, destroys some oilsands facilities

Repost from CBC News, Edmonton
[Editor: For latest updates, see The Fort McMurray fire: What’s happening now, and what you’ve missed, the Globe and Mail.  – RS]

Fort McMurray fire grows to 423,000 hectares, continues to threaten oilsands sites

Wildfire stalls near Saskatchewan border but continues spread north to oilsands facilities
May 18, 2016 9:08 AM MT Last Updated: May 18, 2016 1:20 PM MT
An aerial view of the flames roaring north of Fort McMurray on Tuesday afternoon.
An aerial view of the flames roaring north of Fort McMurray on Tuesday afternoon. (Phoenix Heli-Flight)

The Fort McMurray wildfire in northern Alberta is carving a new path of destruction, destroying an oilsands camp while racing eastward toward more industry sites.

The fire, which has become known as “the beast,” has grown by a staggering 57,000 hectares [220 square miles] in the last 24 hours, consuming 423,000 [1633 square miles] hectares of boreal forest as of Wednesday morning.

Wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather attributes the “pretty significant” growth to “extreme fire conditions.”

“It’s really being burning intensely and the winds have been carrying it,” he said Wednesday.

The fire forced 8,000 non-essential workers to flee the area Monday night, and a mandatory evacuation order remains in place for all work camps north of the city.

The majority were sent by ground to work camps near Fort MacKay, about 53 kilometres [33 miles] to the north. But some were also bused, or later flown, south to Edmonton and Calgary.

By Tuesday morning, the flames had made their way to the Blacksand Executive Lodge, which provides accommodations to hundreds of workers in the area.

The building’s sprinkler system was no match for the raging inferno, and all 665 units of the building were consumed by the fire.

 Noralta Buffalo Lodge
Workers evacuate the Noralta Buffalo Lodge, 26 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray, late Monday afternoon. (Justin Bourke)

Within hours, the flames had spread east, threatening the Noralta Lodge Fort McMurray Village, a facility that can house more than 3,000 people, and Horizon North’s Birch Mountain, a 540-unit facility.

Noralta officials took to social media Tuesday night to say the fire had been held back, but the site was still at risk and crews would be working through the night to protect the facility.

Six kilometres [3.7 miles] away from the Blacksand Lodge, the Birch Mountain Lodge, also owned by Horizon North, remains in the path of the fire.

“We’ve got eight camps in a perimeter around Fort McMurray, out of seven which have been evacuated,” Rod Graham, president and CEO of Horizon North, told CBC News on Wednesday.

“We have not sent any of our people into harm’s way, but from unconfirmed reports we’ve had, our Birch property is still standing.”

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

Each site is surrounded by wide barriers of cleared firebreak and gravel and are guarded by their own firefighting crews. However, only essential personnel remain at both plants.

Crews in the area continue to work around the clock to douse the flames and create firebreaks around critical infrastructure, but the fire has become increasingly volatile amid high winds and tinder-dry conditions.

“Over the last 48 hours it has certainly grown significantly, particularly along the eastern edge, growing toward the Saskatchewan border, but also growing north toward the oilsands facilities,” said Bruce Macnab, with the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton.

“In these kind of conditions, the fire crews will be doing their best to fight the sides of the fire when conditions allow, but that’s very much weather dependent.”

By noon Wednesday, the eastern front of the fire appeared to be stalled about five kilometres [3 miles] from the Saskatchewan border. The government there has established a wildfire base camp in the small community of Buffalo Narrows to use air tankers and helicopters along the eastern edge of the massive fire.

But Duane McKay, Saskatchewan’s commissioner of emergency and fire safety, said smoke is the biggest concern for residents of the nearest community, La Loche, which is about 20 kilometres [12.4 miles] from the border.

The fire itself poses no current threat to the town or any other Saskatchewan communities, McKay said.

He said the wind is expected to shift directions later today and could blow the fire back on itself.

“We don’t anticipate it crossing the border in the near future,” he said. But he cautioned that the fire “obviously has a mind of its own in terms of where it wants to go.”

fire map
A map from Natural Resources Canada shows the extent of the Fort McMurray wildfire fire as of May 17. (Natural Resources Canada)
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