Fort McMurray wildfire hasn’t grown, crews hopeful

Fort McMurray Wildfire
Burnt out trees are shown in Fort McMurray, Alta., in a May 13, 2016, file photo. The massive wildfire that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray hasn't grown in size in the forest around the city and officials are bringing in more firefighters to try and gain the upper hand. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON – A massive wildfire that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray hasn’t grown in size in the forest around the city and officials are planning a surge of firefighters in the coming days to try to gain the upper hand.

Alberta senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison said Friday cooler temperatures, higher humidity and a forecast for rain have allowed the government to safely put more boots on the ground.

“From a firefighting perspective we hope to hold this fire in place over the weekend,” Morrison said. “Even if we don’t get rain, the firefighters and our resources out there are making great progress. These are great firefighting days for us.

“As every day goes by, we continue to run this thing down and continue to secure it.”

The province plans to bring in an extra 1,000 firefighters over the next two weeks, adding to 1,100 already on the ground, Morrison said.

Many will come from a pool of Alberta crews who had been spelled off earlier in the month. The rest will come from other jurisdictions.

The blaze is already about 5,000 square kilometres in size, with nearly eight square kilometres stretching over into Saskatchewan. This single fire has burned the same amount of forest as all fires consumed in Alberta last year.

More than 2,400 buildings were destroyed in Fort McMurray earlier this month and the northeastern Alberta city remains under a mandatory evacuation order.

Major oilsands operation to the north of the city, including Suncor and Syncrude, were also placed on mandatory evacuation earlier this week when the fire pushed in that direction and destroyed a work camp.

Late Friday, the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo announced those evacuation orders had been lifted. Workers at Suncor, Syncrude, Millennium, Borealis, Hudson, Noralta and Ruth Lake camps would be allowed back immediately.

There was also some good news from Imperial Oil on Friday. The company announced it has restarted limited operations at its Kearl oilsands site.

The province is hoping to have the more than 80,000 evacuees from the city return to the region starting June 1, providing certain safety benchmarks can be met.

The government has been giving out preloaded debt cards to evacuees to help with immediate expenses and the Red Cross has also been distributing electronic money transfer. Schreiber acknowledged that there have been reports of some people trying to take advantage of that system. Police are following up on those cases.

“In general, it is an extremely small number,” said Shane Schreiber, assistant deputy minister with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. “We’ve had a handful of reports of this activity going on.”