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Canada wildfires now directly threaten Alberta oil sands facilities

18 May 2016

The wildfires that destroyed parts of the Canadian town of Fort McMurray last week have now moved north and are threatening oil sands production and staff facilities, with one 655-room lodge for oil workers burned to the ground on May 17. Authorities have ordered the mandatory evacuation of 8,000 workers, many northwards, as the single road south is still cut by the wildfires.

Stock image
Stock image

If need be, these workers can still be evacuated by air from Fort McKay to the north. There have been no reported casualties so far.

The uncontrolled blaze is continuing to grow and was reported late May 17 as covering 355,000 hectares, up from 285,000 hectares a day earlier. Blacksand Executive Lodge 35 km north of Fort McMurray has been destroyed, and three other work camps are said to be directly in the line of fire

The wildfires are taking a serious toll on Alberta's economy, with one study estimating the lost oil production would cut gross domestic product (GDP) by more than C$ 70 million a day, with total losses in the last fortnight approaching C$ 1 billion.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said westerly winds were expected to push the fire closer to production facilities operated by Suncor Energy and Syncrude, while staff camps at Noralta Lodge and Birch Creek were also at risk, as was Northland Sawmill. TransAlta's Poplar Creek cogeneration power plant has also been evacuated.

The fire also threatened Enbridge's Cheecham crude oil tank farm south of Fort McMurray, but Notley said the fire line built there has held and winds were blowing away from the facility.

About 1,000 firefighters, 200 pieces of heavy equipment, 47 helicopters and 29 air tankers are currently battling the wildfires around Fort McMurray, according to CBC.

Provincial authorities also reported two house explosions in residential Fort McMurray neighbourhoods that had badly damaged a number of surrounding homes on May 17. This followed the restoration of gas supplies to parts of the town.

Gas company ATCO has a team on site helping in the investigation to determine the cause of the explosions.

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