Fort McMurray fire sweeps east through northern oilsands sites

The Fort McMurray wildfire has destroyed one of the oilsands camps north of the city and is roaring eastward toward others in its path.

Fire destroys lodge for workers north of the city

This video, sent in by Stan Laurent, captures flames and smoke at the work camp north of Fort McMurray. 0:35

The Fort McMurray wildfire has destroyed one of the oilsands camps north of the city and is roaring eastward toward others in its path.

The fire destroyed all 665 units at Blacksand Executive Lodge, which provided temporary housing for workers in nearby oil facilities, on Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, flames were at the edges of the Noralta Lodge camp, just a few kilometres east of Blacksand.

CBC News also obtained photos of flames at the edges of an AFD Petroleum facility, about five kilometres northwest of Noralta.

The AFD petroleum facility, located roughly five kilometres northwest of Noralta Lodge outside of Fort McMurray, is pictured on Tuesday afternoon. (Name withheld by request)
Officials said the fire was expected to move east on Tuesday and would likely jump Highway 63 south of Noralta Lodge.  

Businesses in the area have been alerted. "We have an evacuation plan and we're ready to use it," said Dave Harman, a director for the Northlands Sawmill.

On Tuesday afternoon, he and a small team of colleagues were preparing the sawmill site for the fire. They had started bulldozing trees and brush to make wide fire breaks just days after the first fires hit Fort McMurray. Harman said they have now brought in a water cannon and 70 sprinklers.

This photo of Blacksand Executive Lodge was taken by a CBC contact around 6 a.m. Tuesday morning. (Name withheld by request)
An official told him the flames were one kilometre west of the facility, which is located about halfway between the northern edge of Fort McMurray and the Noralta Lodge site.

Satellite view

The mass of flames some have come to call "the beast" is not a single fire, but rather several fires surrounding and within the town of Fort McMurray.

NASA's Suomi NPP satellite collected images of what its office called "the myriad of fires in the Fort McMurray complex" on May 16.

You just get on those buses and pray that you're headed away from the danger.- B.J. Spears, oil worker

The photos show huge columns of smoke and several actively burning spots.

Air pollution levels in the Fort McMurray area have been extremely high this week, with off-the-chart ratings of 38 measured Monday morning (typically, "extreme risk" in Alberta is measured as a 10).

Alberta Health Services warned workers in the area — including firefighters — should wear N95 masks and to limit the amount of work they do outside each day.

Officials said the conditions are likely to hinder both firefighting efforts and attempts to get the town and surrounding areas ready  for the return of an estimated 94,000 evacuees displaced by the fire.

Saskatchewan border 

The leading eastern edge of the Alberta fires was expected to reach the Saskatchewan border by the end of Tuesday.

Provincial government spokeswoman Kathy Young said in an email that Saskatchewan wildfire staff had already been called to help fight the blaze and were preparing for its arrival.

"Once it reaches the border, the fire will still be more than 40 kilometres from any Saskatchewan community, and numerous lakes, swamp and old burns in the area where the fire is projected to enter Saskatchewan will assist firefighters," she wrote.

"There is no immediate threat to any Saskatchewan communities."

Thousands of workers told to leave 

The destruction of the Blacksand lodge came just hours after thousands of workers were told to leave the area. The sky glowed orange from the southwest as thousands of workers from camps outside the town were directed to get on buses and leave. 

Flames are visible about four kilometres down the road from Noralta Lodge last week. (Name withheld by request)
An official emergency alert said new evacuees from several camps to the north and south of Fort McMurray should take Highway 63 southbound. But some of the workers were taken a few kilometres north instead.

Notley confirmed that roughly 8,000 workers were affected by Monday's new evacuation order, and estimated some 6,000 were left in the north. 

"It's so scary and intimidating," said oil worker B.J. Spears, in an interview Tuesday morning.

He was sent home during the first wave of evacuations, when the province cleared the northern camps of all non-essential workers during the weekend of May 7. After five days in Ontario, Spears was called back to stay and work out of Noralta Lodge.

He arrived Sunday and worked an overnight shift. When he awoke Monday afternoon, authorities told him it was time to leave.

The evacuated Noralta Lodge oil camp is pictured around 2 p.m. Tuesday. (Name withheld by request )
"You just get on those buses and pray that you're headed away from the danger," said Spears.

Spears said he and about 2,000 other workers were sent to a camp farther north called McClelland Lake Lodge, near Suncor's Fort Hills site. He said supervisors told them Tuesday to stay in their rooms and wait for news.

But he and some of his colleagues wonder why they're staying put.

"I don't know what they're waiting for," Spears said.

Notley said she's confident energy companies can airlift the remaining workers out if needed. She said the fire was expected to move east, not north, on Tuesday. 

As of 10 p.m. Monday night, 19 oil sites and camps north of Fort McMurray were under a mandatory evacuation order, including the Syncrude and Suncor production facilities south of Fort MacKay.

The map shows the active fire areas surrounding Fort McMurray. The green dots represent oilsands camps while the yellow areas mark Fort McMurray neighbourhoods. (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo)