FORT MCMURRAY, ALBERTA – A massive wildfire raging in Canada’s oil sands capital has moved into Alberta’s neighboring province of Saskatchewan, but officials said Thursday that they hope cooler temperatures and rain forecast for the coming days will help mitigate its spread.
News of the fire’s spread comes a day after officials said that the more than 80,000 residents who were forced to evacuate Fort McMurray and surrounding regions two weeks ago could return home starting on June 1 if conditions are deemed to be safe.
Alberta senior wildlife manager Chad Morrison said the fire, which has grown to 1,930 sq. miles (5,000 sq. km), has burned nearly 3 sq. miles (8 sq. km) into Saskatchewan. However, it is still about 18 miles (30 km) away from La Loche, the nearest Saskatchewan community.
Emergency management commissioner Duane McKay said there is no direct threat from the flames, in part because of the lake next to the community and because fires last year mean there’s less brush and trees to burn.
McKay said there’s hope that winds from the east will help clear some of the smoke moving toward the La Loche community.
Premier Rachel Notley reiterated Thursday that the Fort McMurray fire continues to “burn out of control” north of the city but emergency crews have been successful in securing the oil sands facilities from the fiery flames.
Morrison said a trace amount of rain fell in the region Thursday morning and more moisture, along with cooler temperatures, are forecast in the coming days.
“We don’t count rain until it hits the bucket,” he said. “We’re optimistic we’ll see rain but we’ll still be attacking the fires hard.”
Since the fire ignited May 1 and started spreading rapidly after that, about 1,921 structures were destroyed in Fort McMurray, but 90 percent of the city remains intact, including essential infrastructure like the hospital, water treatment plant and the airport.
Morrison said so far the blaze has burned the same amount of forest as all fires consumed in Alberta last year.
Northern Alberta is the heartland of Canada’s oil sands industry and the effects of the enormous wildfire on the oil sector have prompted forecasters to trim their 2016 economic growth predictions for the entire country. The emergency forced nearby oil sands facilities to shut down.
The Alberta 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 come from all over Canada.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5