High winds push Fort McMurray wildfire toward Suncor and Syncrude plants

The "beast" wildfire burning out of control around Fort McMurray will be pushed east today, spurred by high winds, and is expected to encroach on major oilsands facilities owned by Suncor and Syncrude, officials say.

'We feel fairly confident those sites … will be OK,' says Chad Morrison, senior wildfire manager

The fire lit up the sky Monday night near Noralta lodge, about 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. (Supplied)

The "beast" wildfire burning out of control around Fort McMurray will be pushed east today, spurred by high winds, and is expected to encroach on major oilsands facilities owned by Suncor and Syncrude, officials say.

Those massive plants north of the city, used to process bitumen, are surrounded by wide barriers of cleared firebreak and gravel, and employ their own firefighting crews.

"We expect the [fire] to move east towards Suncor's facility, Northlands sawmill and potentially towards northern portions of Fort McMurray," said Chad Morrison, senior wildfire manager. "But we're still optimistic that firefighters will continue to hold those northern neighbourhoods."

The oilsands facilities themselves are unlikely to be damaged by the flames, said Morrison.

Fires burned through the oilsands region north of Fort McMurray in 2011, Morrison said, and the sites themselves were never in danger.

"We feel fairly confident those sites themselves will be OK," he said.

The fire grew by 70,000 hectares overnight, and now covers 355,000 hectares. The eastern front of the fire is expected to reach the Saskatchewan border later today, Morrison said.

"Mother Nature continues to be our foe in this regard and not our friend," Premier Rachel Notley said at a news conference.

As the fire continued to rage north of the city Monday, it forced the mandatory evacuation of all work camps in a 60-kilometre area between Fort McMurray and Fort MacKay, displacing about 8,000 non-essential workers.

"The remaining staff will ensure site safety and stability, while it is safe to do so," Notley said. "Plans are in place to evacuate them, if and when needed. We expect fire growth in the area of many of these camps today."

Most of the workers involved are employed at 12 plants for Suncor and Syncrude.

The 665-room Blacksand Lodge work camp, about 35 kilometres from Fort McMurray, was destroyed by fire Monday night.
Blacksand Lodge, 34 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, was destroyed by the wildfire that forced the displacement of 8,000 workers Monday.

"Those facilities have some fire treatment in place that will hopefully prevent them seeing too much impact from the fire," said Fairweather. "Any time you see a fire getting close to anything, it's a scary situation."

About 6,000 of those people were moved to the north and could be flown to safety from landing strips owned by oilsands companies, should that be necessary, said Scott Long, executive director of operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Notley said firefighting efforts will focus Tuesday on the area around those work camps and on protecting the Northlands Products sawmill, about 16 kilometres north of the city, which is currently threatened by the fire.

Meanwhile, firefighters in Fort McMurray responded to an explosion and a fire that happened overnight.
An explosion at a home in the Dickensfield neighbourhood in Fort McMurray damaged several homes Monday night. (Facebook)

One fire happened in the Thickwood area, on Silin Forest Road near Father Patrick Mercredi Community School. One fourplex was destroyed and three other units were damaged.

An explosion happened at a home on Clenell Crescent in Dickinsfield. Seven nearby homes on Dickins Drive were also damaged. The fires were quickly extinguished and the explosion is still under investigation.

Officials initially said the fire in the Thickwood area was an explosion, and that the explosion on Clenell Crescent occurred on McConachie Crescent. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo corrected this information Tuesday evening.

More than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray, the entire population, are now entering their third week away from home with no word on when they may be able to return.

Recovery efforts in the city have been hampered by heavy smoke. On Monday, the air quality index (normally measured on a scale of one to 10) was off the scale at 38. On Tuesday, the index dipped to 13, still an extremely high risk, but was expected to rise later in the day.

"This poses a serious risk to first responders and recovery workers in the area, and so it has the potential to stall recovery efforts," Notley said. "And we're seeing a bit of that already."

Notley said there had been plans to allow workers from retail shops and grocery stores back into the city to prepare for when the residents return. Those plans have now been put on hold.

The 400 workers who had been brought in to help prepare for the reopening of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre were also forced to evacuate from the area Monday.

A map of Noralta's oilsands camps. Noralta provides lodging for workers from major oilsands facilities surrounding Fort McMurray. (Noralta)