Edmonton

Companies airlift Fort McMurray oilsands workers under new fire threat

The fire that destroyed an oil camp north of Fort McMurray is still looming at oil sites north of the city, as workers left behind face a tense day of watching and waiting.

Fort McMurray fire destroys one oil camp, threatens others

An eerie red haze descended on the Fort McMurray area Monday, as shown in this photo obtained by CBC News. Many workers were scheduled to return to work this week before a mandatory evacuation order was issued. (Name withheld by request)

The fire that destroyed one work camp north of Fort McMurray has spared another — but remains a looming risk to oil sites and workers left behind.

Flames razed Blacksand Executive Lodge on Tuesday and burned at the edges of nearby Noralta Lodge overnight. A crew of provincial and privately hired firefighters held back the fire Wednesday.

The company reported no structural damage, but said the facility, which provided temporary housing for oil workers, is still "at risk."

That fire on the west side of town also roared eastward across Highway 63 and up to the Northlands Sawmill. The mill sits roughly 20 kilometres north of the Fort McMurray townsite, on the east side of the highway.

Mill director David Harman, who helped beat back the blaze, confirmed to CBC News that provincial firefighters and helicopters helped hold back the fire after it crossed the road around 1:30 p.m. MT Wednesday and burned up to the southern edge of the mill site. 

Where's the fire?

Fires surrounding Fort McMurray flared up on throughout the day, sweeping northeast and toward the highway.

In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Premier Rachel Notley said the fire had not jumped Highway 63.

A photo obtained by CBC News taken Wednesday afternoon shows firefighters at work along the side of Highway 63, about a half kilometre south of the Parsons Creek gravel pit. (Name withheld by request)
Wednesday afternoon, CBC News obtained photos taken about a half kilometre south of the Parsons Creek gravel pit that show firefighters dousing flames metres from the highway shoulder.

But with smoky and dangerous conditions, the full scope remains difficult to track.  

"There were natural barriers in the way that were slowing the wildfire down," wrote government spokesman John Archer in an email, explaining the fire was reportedly 400 metres from the highway Tuesday night. "Visibility is very poor due to heavy smoke and it has been difficult for firefighters to assess."

Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison told a news conference Wednesday that fires "burned vegetation at the edges" of the Syncrude and Suncor oilfields.

Neither company has reported damage to production facilities.

Smoky midnight flights

As the fire moved farther eastward, energy companies that brought employees back to work during the past week quickly moved to get them out again.

It just started getting darker and redder ... I can barely see.- Russell Gavelin, oil worker

Officials confirm that 2,700 oil workers were flown out overnight Tuesday.

Suncor employee Russell Gavelin was among them.

He first left his work camp on the weekend of May 7 when the area north of the city was evacuated — and was brought back to camp to start work again on Monday.

"As we got closer and closer to Suncor, it just started getting darker and redder," he said of his return to the northern site. "Finally to the point where it's 2:30 in the afternoon and I can barely see my hand in front of my face on the bus."

This video, sent in by Stan Laurent, captures flames and smoke at the work camp north of Fort McMurray. 0:35
The provincial government issued new mandatory evacuation orders that afternoon, which affected an estimated 8,000 people north of Fort McMurray.

Gavelin and many others did not get back to work. Instead, most were taken by bus to oil lodges farther north, outside the evacuation zone: Wapasu Creek Lodge, McLelland Lake Lodge and Grey Wolf Lodge.   

"No one could have predicted what happened," Gavelin said. "The fire was considered to be far enough from operations that we would have been OK. I might have questioned that, but I was really quite eager to go back to work."

Syncrude clears out

The mandatory evacuation order issued this week applies to 19 oil facilities from Aostra Road to just south of Fort McKay.

Syncrude and Suncor's production plants, as well as several of the lodges where those workers stay, are part of that list.

Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson said his company made the decision to initiate a total shutdown of operations on May 7. They moved all staff out of the area during precautionary evacuations of regions north of Fort McMurray that weekend.

Russell Gavelin took this picture of the huge mushroom cloud of smoke over Fort McMurray on his flight into the area on Monday afternoon. (Russell Gavelin )
He said some 500 workers had returned by the time the new evacuation order was issued this week. About 400 of those workers were taken by bus south out of Fort McMurray by Tuesday morning, he said in an interview with CBC News.

Roughly 100 essential or emergency staff have stayed on to watch over Syncrude's Mildred Lake and Aurora facilities.

"We wanted to ensure safety of our people out there," Gibson said.

Gibson said he's confident tailings ponds at the south end of the Syncrude site will work like a fire break.

"They would not catch on fire, because it's largely water," he said. "The tailings ponds contain only trace amounts of bitumen."

He estimated the size of the Syncrude oilsands mine closest to that northwestern tongue of the fire, called Mildred Lake, is about 35,000 hectares in size.

Suncor's air escape

Suncor's executive vice-president Mark Little has similarly announced plans to move all staff except critical emergency personnel out of the area — by road or by air.

Jan Michael Natividad's video from the Noralta Lodge work camp north of Fort McMurray, which was evacuated Monday. 0:21
"We were confident that the fire was under control on the west side of the river before we started putting people back into our operations," wrote Little in a post on the company's Facebook page, dated May 17 at 10:30 p.m. "Unfortunately, due to rapidly changing events (the fire travelled approximately 30 km in one day), we had to step back and shut in our base plant facility."

Little encouraged employees to leave their personal vehicles behind and take company-sponsored buses in RCMP-controlled convoys straight to a private airport nearby.

CBC's calls to Suncor requesting an interview were not returned.

The fire had consumed an estimated 423,000 hectares by Wednesday morning. Wednesday's forecast called for gusting winds and warm temperatures throughout the day.

Notley said on Wednesday that Shell and CNRL, two other major oil producers located north of Fort McMurray, whose facilities are situated further from the fires, have operated without interruption since the fires began.

It is estimated that a total of 11,000 workers remained in the northern work camps as of Wednesday afternoon.