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Alberta premier tours fire-ravaged oil sands hub Fort McMurray, upbeat on recovery effort

AP

Alberta’s premier got her first look at the devastation in Canada’s oil sands town of Fort McMurray on Monday after cold temperatures and light rain stabilized the massive wildfire to a point where officials can begin the next phase of a plan to get residents back into the oil sands town.

The break in the weather has officials optimistic they’ve reached a turning point on getting a handle on the massive wildfire. The temperature dipped to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) on Monday following a week where the region had unseasonably warm temperatures.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the battle against the fire has stabilized to the point where she and the mayor can tour Fort McMurray’s fire-ravaged neighborhoods. More than 40 journalists were allowed in on a bus escorted by police. The forest surrounding the road into town was still smoldering and there were abandoned cars.

Notley flew in Monday morning to meet with local officials and was taking a ground tour of the town before holding a news conference at the emergency center, her spokeswoman said.

More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray, where the fire has burned 1,600 homes and other buildings in the heart of Canada’s oil sands region.

Gas has been turned off, the power grid is damaged and water is undrinkable. More than 250 power company workers are trying to restore the grid and assess the gas infrastructure.

“We are now turning our minds more and more to the recovery effort,” Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said.

“This is going to be a long term endeavor because at the moment there is no power and gas, no palatable watery supply. There’s dangerous hazardous material all over the place. It’s going to take a very careful, thoughtful effort to get that community back in a livable condition,” Goodale said.

There is no timeline to return evacuees, but the provincial government sent in a team Monday to do preliminary planning.

David Yurdiga, who represents the area in Parliament, toured Fort McMurray on Sunday and said he was now more optimistic.

“We’ll be back on our feet a lot quicker than I thought we would be,” he told reporters at the roadblock just south of the city. “All of the key infrastructure is in place. Our hospital is standing. Our schools are standing. Our treatment plant is functioning.”

“I toured probably every neighborhood in Fort McMurray and 80 percent of the homes are standing,” he said. “Some areas you don’t even know there was a fire.”

It rained on Sunday, and with cooler temperatures forecast for the next three or four days, Alberta fire official Chad Morrison said firefighters should be able to put out hot spots to further protect Fort McMurray. He said he was pleased that they are making great progress.

“It definitely is a positive point for us, for sure,” said Morrison, who acknowledged the fight to contain the flames had a reached a turning point.

“We’re obviously very happy that we’ve held the fire better than expected,” he said. “This is great firefighting weather. We can really get in here and get a handle on this fire, and really get a death grip on it.”

Notley said the wildfire grew much more slowly than was feared and was now about 620 sq.(1,600 sq. km) in size. She said Sunday that the blaze was quite a bit smaller than had been expected on Saturday, when officials expected it to double in size. She added the city was safe for first responders.

Officials completed the transport of 25,000 residents out of work camps north of the city after police oversaw a procession of thousands of vehicles Friday and Saturday, and a mass airlift of thousands of evacuees was also employed from the oil mine airfields. The bulk of the city’s evacuees moved south after Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation order, but 25,000 evacuees moved north and were housed in camps normally used for oil sands workers.

No deaths or injuries have been reported from the fire itself. The fire that has scorched homes and burned down whole neighborhoods has forced as much as a third of Canada’s oil output offline and was expected to impact an economy already hurt by the fall in oil prices.

“We’re just beginning to become aware of the economic impacts,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Trudeau said there is no need to accept any international assistance in the fire-fighting effort because of the help being provided from other Canadian provinces. Russia had offered water bombers. The prime minister also encouraged Canadians to continue to donate to the Red Cross and said his government will invest in the city to rebuild.

Alberta’s oil sands have the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Its workers largely live in Fort McMurray, a former frontier outpost-turned-city whose residents mostly come from elsewhere in Canada.

Morrison said the fire has not reached the Suncor or Syncrude oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray, and that the mines to the north are not threatened. Notley said there will be a meeting Tuesday with the energy industry to discuss the state of the facilities and the impact on operations.

Suncor said late Sunday it is beginning to implement its plan for a return to operations. Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated the wildfire has reduced Canada’s oil sands production by a million barrels per day, but said in a note the lack of damage to the oil mines could allow for a fast ramp up in production. They noted the complete evacuation of personnel and of the city could point to a more gradual recovery.

Volunteer firefighter Jessica Kappel spoke with the media on Monday outside a Leduc County support vehicle at the roadblock just south of Fort McMurray.

Kappel, 33, said her group is there to offer meals and drinks for the firefighters on the ground. Today’s menu item is beef stew, she said.

“When we arrive, we open the door and let them know we have a warm meal ready for them, she said.

Alberta Health Services Dr. Chris Sikora said a stomach virus broke out among 40 to 50 evacuees at the Northlands evacuation center in Edmonton where 600 people are staying and where five to six thousand meals a day are being prepared for the thousands of evacuees. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. They were isolated.