Change in weather slows growth of Fort McMurray fire

A change in the weather has slowed the progress of the Fort McMurray wildfire, though it still rages out of control, according to Alberta fire officials.

'For us this is great firefighting weather, we can really get in there and get a death grip on this fire'

A man wearing fire-retardant clothing approaches a roadblock on Highway 63 as smoke rises from the wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 6, 2016. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

A change in the weather has slowed the progress of the Fort McMurray wildfire, though it still rages out of control, according to Alberta fire officials.

Rain pattered down on first responders near Fort McMurray on Sunday. While the rain itself wasn't having an immediate big impact on the fire, it signalled a change in weather that firefighters were hoping for.

"For us, this is great firefighting weather," senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison told a news conference Sunday. "We can really get in there and get a death grip on this fire. 

"With the cooler weather, we expect to hold the fire there and I expect to hold the fire there for a few days."

The fire didn't spread as quickly as was expected by fire officials when they assessed it on Saturday. It currently sits at 161,000 hectares — or 1,610 square kilometres — a little under three times the size of Edmonton. Officials had previously predicted it would grow to 200,000 hectares by Sunday.

There are still strong west winds blowing the fire in an easterly direction toward Saskatchewan. It sits 30 to 40 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said road convoys and flights managed to move 25,000 people from north of Fort McMurray to the south over the weekend.

"At 10 o'clock this morning, no evacuees are left on the north side of the fire," Notley told reporters.

Recognize the good, remember the bad

While the mood at the press conference had a feeling of hope, Notley choked up when she mentioned the only fatalities linked to the fire so far. 

"It has been widely remarked, including by myself, about how miraculous it has been to evacuate the entire population of the city and its surrounding facilities in such a short period of time," said Notley. "Unfortunately we did lose at least two of our fellow citizens during this emergency, due to traffic fatalities."

A logging truck continues to smolder beside highway 881 where it collided with an SUV. (Supplied: Stephen Barkley)

Two people were killed Wednesday in a traffic accident while evacuating the city —15-year-old Emily Ryan and 19-year-old Aaron Hodgson.

"This is Mother's Day," said Notley, her voice thick with emotion. "I'm hoping in all of this crisis to spend a few minutes today with my own children.

"That not all of us can do that is definitely an awful tragedy. So today, Mother's Day, all of us in Alberta are thinking of you who have suffered these losses."

Re-entry teams moving in tomorrow

Scott Long, executive director of Alberta's Emergency Management Agency, said officials are going to be moving into phase two of their Fort McMurray response plan — stabilization of the situation. 

A re-entry team will be deployed to the city tomorrow morning. 

"We're going to start getting some folks on the ground that can start having a look about damage assessments and getting a feel for it," said Long.

Long said they are taking what the province learned after disasters like Slave Lake and High River 

"The hard work is having a look at all the critical infrastructure, getting people back to their homes as quickly as possible," he said.

"Unfortunately in Alberta, we've had our fair share [of disasters] over the few years. Fortunately it's given us a lot of skill sets and knowledge on how to do this."

First responders paid particular attention to the city's critical infrastructure — hospitals, schools and water-treatment plants — which will make the timeline for re-entry quicker. 

They are still not able to offer any concrete numbers on damaged and destroyed homes.

"Up until tomorrow, the focus remains on protecting what's there, not counting what's there."

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