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Fort McMurray wildfire prompts oilsands operators to cut production, house evacuees

Operations at oilsands facilities near the wildfire that has put Fort McMurray, Alta., under an evacuation order are still largely safe, but nearby work camps are being converted into housing for evacuees.

Oil sites not under threat from fire, but face deluge of people fleeing the flames

Fort McMurray resident Crystal Maltais buckles in her daughter, Mckennah Stapley, as they prepare to evacuate the city of Fort McMurray for safer ground. (Topher Seguin/Reuters)

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  • Syncrude joins Shell and Suncor in cutting production to focus on helping evacuees

Operations at oilsands facilities near the wildfire that has put Fort McMurray, Alta., under an evacuation order are safe from the flames for now, but nearby work camps being converted into housing for evacuees.

As emergency fire crews work to contain the wildfire, which has already destroyed nearly 30 square kilometres and displaced 80,000 people. Oilsands operators said Wednesday the fire doesn't pose an imminent threat, but they are taking every precaution and helping where they can.

Many companies have oilsands operations in the area, and while none are under direct threat from fire, those facilities are impacted, and the companies are taking action.

Suncor

The oil conglomerate's base oilsands plant is about 25 kilometres from the city, and while that site isn't in harms way, the company has removed all non-essential staff from the area as a precaution and to make room for evacuees.

"We are reducing production at our regional facilities in order to allow employees and their families to get to safety," the company said in a statement.

"We're providing transportation and accommodation to the region to support the evacuation," spokesman Paul Newmarch said. "We're making whatever we have available to support the evacuation."

Residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., leave the city in a slow snarl of traffic headed north to escape a wildfire that threatens to engulf the oil city. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Shell 

Shell operates the Albian Sands facility almost 100 kilometres out of town, and while it too is not currently under fire danger, it has been shut down as a precaution, knocking almost 250,000 barrels a day worth of production offline.

"While our operations are currently far from the fires, we have shut down production at our Shell Albian Sands mining operations so we can focus on getting families out of the region," Shell spokesman Cameron Yost said.

"Right now, our priority is providing support for our people, their loved ones and others in the area. Our work camp, the Albian Village, is now open to all evacuated Fort McMurray residents who need a safe place to stay and we are evacuating non-essential staff to make room for those who need it most."

Shell's camp can accommodate up to 2,000 people.

Husky Energy

At Husky Energy, which operates the Sunrise oilsands facility about 60 kilometres north of the city, spokesman Mel Duvall said: "At this time, our operations at Sunrise are unaffected.

"We continue to monitor the situation and as a precaution have evacuated non-essential personnel. We have opened up our camp facilities to evacuees and are working with the municipality to accommodate as many people as possible. We are doing everything we can to assist those who have had to leave Fort McMurray in any way we can."

Athabasca Oil Sands

Athabasca operates the Hangingstone oilsands facility approximately 15 kilometres south of the city, and spokesman Matthew Taylor said the facility is not under imminent threat. 

"Fortunately at this time there has been no impact to our operations," he said. "The situation is being closely monitored, a response plan is in place and we are in communication with the appropriate government agencies to ensure we are up-to-speed with all necessary developments. Athabasca will assist the community in any way possible. We have offered up available beds at the Hangingstone site to emergency workers or anyone else who may need shelter during this tragic time."

Other energy names

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., which operates oilsands facilities even farther north, said it was working to ensure any affected workers and their families could use its camps.

ConocoPhillips said its operations aren't affected, but the company has opened up 200 beds at Conoco's "regional residence for evacuees."

Reports from Reuters indicated that the Alberta government said pipeline company Enbridge was starting shutdown procedures due to the fire.

Syncrude

The oilsands giant has reduced operations to help support employees who have been forced to evacuate, a company spokesman said on Wednesday. The facility's work camp can house about 2,000 people.

Will Gibson, a spokesman for Syncrude which has operations 35 kilometres north of the city, is one of the evacuees headed north and away from the flames.

"People are actually being evacuated toward the plants," he said. "We're being instructed to go to work camps in the region and report in there. We're assuming it will be more than a night."

Gibson said he had to flee his neighbourhood via a grass embankment because the fire had already cut off the road at both ends.

"I left my neighbourhood and there [were] houses on fire," he said. "I don't know if and when I'll be going back."

CNOOC subsidiary Nexen Energy said its operations were unaffected.

WestJet

Calgary-based airline WestJet said it was offering extra "mercy flights" on Tuesday night and for as long as needed to Suncor employees to get them out of the city. That both keeps them safe and makes work sites available to house other evacuees.

"All scheduled flights in and out of Fort McMurray have been cancelled, however WestJet will be sending empty aircraft to YMM today to recover guests that couldn't get out of the area yesterday," WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said. "These flights will be going to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver."

Canada Post

The national mail carrier has suspended all mail delivery to the area pending further notice.

"We will communicate details as soon as possible as delivery to the area is currently suspended," spokesman Mouktar Abdillahi said. "All mail and parcels destined for Fort McMurray will be held securely in Edmonton until plans are in place. We thank the people of Fort McMurray for their patience in this difficult time."

Other impacts

Labrador native Cavell Dumaresque, one of the evacuees heading north, told CBC News on Wednesday that her car was directed to an area even farther north, near the Firebag operation, because she had enough gas to get there and officials wanted to keep the closer locales as empty as possible.

"We weren't overcrowded when we got here, but they are still coming in as far as I can tell," she told CBC.

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With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters

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