Top Stories Today: Alberta’s Wildfires

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State of emergency called in Alberta fire

Fort McMurray Evacuees
Evacuees from Fort McMurray, Alta., line up to register at an evacuee reception centre set up and operated by the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo in nearby Anzac, Alta., on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. Raging forest fires whipped up by shifting winds sliced through the middle of the remote oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing in both directions and prompting the evacuation of the entire city. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Allen

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Alberta declared a state of emergency Wednesday as crews frantically held back wind-whipped wildfires that have already torched 1,600 homes and other buildings in Fort McMurray, forcing all 80,000 residents to flee.

“The situation in Fort McMurray is not stable. It is unstable,” Scott Long of Alberta Emergency Management told reporters in a Wednesday afternoon briefing.

“The downtown core is being held through some Herculean efforts of the structural firefighters in the area.”

Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said the state of emergency allows the province to take full control of the situation, conscript people if necessary, and bulldoze structures as required.

“We are still in the throes of an intense crisis,” said Larivee.

There were dangerous and dramatic developments on multiple fronts Wednesday in a story that has made headlines worldwide with stunning video footage of trucks and cars driving past sheer walls of flame.

There were haunting images of scorched trucks, charred homes and telephone poles, burned out from the bottom up, hanging in the wires like little wooden crosses.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley flew up to survey the situation first-hand, while officials in the evacuation centre had to bolt to the south of the city as flames edged closer.

Notley tweeted pictures of the fire from above. “The view from the air is heartbreaking,” she wrote.

The blaze effectively cut Fort McMurray in two late Tuesday, forcing about 10,000 north to the safety of oilsands work camps.

The other 70,000 were sent streaming south in a bumper-to-bumper snake line of cars and trucks that stretched beyond the horizon down Highway 63. Some vehicles sat in ditches, the victims of engine trouble or a lack of gas.

The situation took a tragic twist Wednesday when an SUV collided head on with a tractor-trailer on another southern escape road, Highway 881, killing two and shutting down the road in both directions.

The displaced arrived in communities of Anzac, Lac La Biche and Edmonton. Some were going as far as Calgary.

At Anzac, volunteers served eggs and pancakes to some of the 2,500 people at the recreation centre.

Chantelle Boutin said she was grateful that she and her husband found a safe refuge. The couple brought their two dogs, but one of them died from the stress.

“We lost our house, we lost everything, but we didn’t lose our spirit,” said Boutin.

“Thank you, God, nobody died. Our prayers are with you guys, those firefighters, EMS.”

Crews had been battling the blaze since Sunday.

But the situation turned destructive within minutes on Tuesday afternoon when the blaze, whipped up by winds, roared into the southwest corner of the city.

It engulfed homes in three subdivisions and destroyed vehicles, gas stations and a motel. Most of the homes in the suburbs of Beacon Hill and Waterways were destroyed.

There have been no reports of fire-related injuries or deaths.

The wildfire was still listed out of control as it curled around the city, 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, and was expected to reach 10,000 hectares by day’s end.

Robin Smith with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city, said it was believed everyone left the city.

“We have RCMP patrols that are regularly looping the neighbourhoods to make sure there’s no one straggling,” said Smith.

Long said area pipeline operations were shutting or reducing operations, and residents of the nearby Alexis-Nakota First Nation were ready to leave on an hour’s notice if necessary.

Mayor Melissa Blake said her city is strong and remembers Slave Lake, a community devastated by wildfires in 2011.

“We will hope to follow in the shadow of Slave Lake in our perseverance and resolve,” said Blake.

“And as we look to the future, this is still a place of incredible strength, resiliency and vibrancy.”

The province said 255 firefighters were on scene, backed up by 12 helicopters and 17 air tankers. The military has provided rescue helicopters and 15 residents who had been cut off by fire were airlifted to safety, Long said.

Concerns and best wishes poured in from around the world.

From Britain, the Queen said in a statement: “Prince Philip and I were shocked and saddened by the news of the wildfires that are causing such devastation to Fort McMurray.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected.”

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will provide all possible assistance to Alberta.

Alberta fires singe premiers’ meeting

VANCOUVER – A disastrous wildfire raging in northern Alberta has forced government leaders in western Canada to tweak their plans to meet in Vancouver later this week and has pushed emergency management towards the front of the meeting’s agenda.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley will no longer attend the 2016 Western Premiers’ Conference, which is scheduled to run Thursday and Friday.

Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman, who also serves as the province’s health minister, will replace Notley as Alberta’s representative.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who is hosting the annual gathering, said emergency management will be at the forefront of the discussions as the blaze in Fort McMurray, Alta., forces tens of thousands to flee the encroaching flames.

“Alberta’s in the midst of it at the moment, but every other western province experiences forest fires, floods, concerns about earthquakes and other disasters,” Clark said on Wednesday. “So that’s going to be a major focus for us.”

Still, Clark said much of the conference would also centre around the economy, given what she described as Western Canada’s role in a national context.

“We have traditionally been the economic engine of the country for the last decade,” she said.

The meeting will also focus on job creation, immigration and infrastructure investment, and she will push her counterparts to reach consensus on renegotiating a softwood lumber deal with the United States, Clark said.

Two provincial elections have taken place since last year’s conference, and premiers will be making room for a new face at the table.

Brian Pallister was officially sworn into office in Manitoba on Tuesday, two days before the conference was scheduled to begin.

“Premier Pallister is very much looking forward to meeting and improving relations with our Western neighbours,” said Olivia Billson, a spokeswoman for the premier.

The premiers of Canada’s northern territories will also attend the event, which is scheduled to run Thursday and Friday.


Fire forces oilsands to scale back production

Fort McMurray OilsandsCALGARY – The wildfire raging through the heart of Canada’s oilsands capital dealt a blow Wednesday to crude operations, with companies curtailing production or stopping it altogether.

Shell Canada shut down output at its Albian Sands oilsands mining operations, which have the capacity to produce 255,000 barrels of oil per day. The site is located about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

The company said it made the decision to focus on getting employees and their families out of the region while also freeing up room at its 2,000-person work camp for some of the 80,000 people who were ordered evacuated Tuesday from Fort McMurray.

“Right now, our priority is providing support for our people, their loved ones and others in the area,” Shell spokesman Cameron Yost said in an email.

Shell also employed its landing strip to fly employees and their families to Calgary or Edmonton and has provided two teams to support firefighting efforts in the area.

Operations were also scaled back at the two largest and oldest oilsands mining operations in the Fort McMurray area.

Suncor Energy said the Millennium and North Steepbank mines, its main oilsands project just north of the city, were not in danger from the fire but it is operating with fewer staff and producing less. About 2,000 evacuees have been accepted at its three work camps, the company said.

“We have evacuated all non-essential employees,” said spokesman Paul Newmarch.

Syncrude Canada also reduced the number of people and machines working at its Mildred Lake oilsands mine 35 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The company was also sheltering 2,000 employees and family members at its work camp.

Husky Energy said it was cutting production at its recently commissioned Sunrise thermal oilsands project from 30,000 barrels per day to 10,000 bpd because the fire had forced the closure of a diluent supply pipeline. Sunrise, situated about 60 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray, uses steam injected into a well to produce bitumen and the diluent, a light oil product, is used to thin it enough to allow it to flow in a pipeline to market.

Inter Pipeline, whose systems move about 30 per cent of northern Alberta’s bitumen to market, said it shut off its Corridor pipeline system and partially closed its Polaris diluent pipeline system in the Fort McMurray area as a precaution. No assets have been damaged by the fire, the company said.

Michael Dunn, an oilsands analyst for Calgary investment firm FirstEnergy Capital, said the fire could lead to gasoline price hikes throughout the country, depending on how much damage has been done and how long it takes the industry to recover.

“If this fire does cause an extended period of misplacement of the workforce or movement of them, this may impact the output of a lot of these oilsands mines and upgraders,” he said.

“This could trickle down to crude price differentials, making light sweet crude more expensive, and might trickle down to gasoline prices if refiners need to recoup some of those margins at the pump.”

Canada’s oilsands are considered the third-largest reserves of crude oil in the world, with 166 billion barrels of recoverable oil covering 142,000 square kilometres.

About 80 per cent of Canada’s oilsands are buried too deep for mining and must be recovered through wells. Bitumen ore mined at the surface is considered to be much less flammable than other types of petroleum because it is full of impurities such as sand.

All large oilsands sites have emergency crews and plans for fires, including procedures to shut in facilities to minimize damage.

Most flights in and out of the Fort McMurray International Airport southeast of the city centre were cancelled just before noon.

Feds offer help to fire-stricken Alberta

Justin Trudea - Fort McMurray
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses members of caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government will provide all possible assistance to Alberta as wildfires ravage Fort McMurray.

That help ranges from satellite intelligence to help track to the fire to long-term financial help aimed at recovery.

Canada is a country of people who help each other in challenging times, Trudeau told his caucus Wednesday.

“I’ve been dealing with offers of support and calls from the Atlantic provinces, all the way out to B.C., as people are looking for how they can support their friends and neighbours as people go through this difficult time.”

Trudeau urged people with friends or family in Fort McMurray to make sure they are OK and ask what help they need.

Federal leaders called on Canadians who want to help to donate to the Red Cross.

The prime minister said he has already spoken to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to offer his government’s “total support.”

Notley, who formally requested federal help, said a memorandum of understanding had been signed with National Defence to provide helicopters for search-and-rescue efforts in isolated spots around Fort McMurray as well as transport aircraft to fly in firefighters.

“Our province is strong and we will get through this,” she told a news conference.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stressed that helping Fort McMurray would be a long-term project. “We’re dealing with people’s emergency needs today but the recovery from this situation is going to take a considerable amount of time.”

Among the other federal assistance he outlined:

  • Co-ordination and monitoring through the Government Operations Centre;
  • Satellite and geomatics support to help the province track where the fire is moving;
  • Determining what firefighting assets are available across the country;
  • Stockpiling living supplies, cots and bedding in collaboration with the Red Cross;
  • Efforts to restore communication systems following the destruction of cell-phone towers;
  • Disaster financial assistance arrangements, through which the government begins to cost-share the expense of recovery.

Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, an Edmonton MP, called the disaster heartbreaking.

“I know people who have fled the situation. Two of my friends arrived home safely in Edmonton. It took them nine hours to get there, but they’re home — home safe. It’s very devastating.”

Opposition leader Rona Ambrose, who also hails from Alberta, called on residents to open their homes to evacuees.

“There’s 80,000 people without a home to go back to at this point and need to be safely moved out of the region. It’s a huge concern.”

Insurers mobilize after Fort McMurray fire

TORONTO – Insurance providers are already preparing to assess the damage from a massive fire still burning in Fort McMurray, Alta., that has charred homes, cars and other treasured possessions.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada is urging the more than 80,000 residents who have been forced to evacuate the city to contact their insurance providers and keep track of all their expenses.

“Insurers are mobilized and will answer questions,” said IBC spokesman Steve Kee.

Home insurance typically provides coverage for the property, the possessions inside and living expenses incurred while unable to stay in the residence, said Rocco Neglia, vice-president of claims at Economical Insurance. Businesses can also purchase insurance that will protect them from any sales or earnings lost if operations are interrupted due to an event like a fire, he said.

Most home insurance coverage should provide people some money for daily living costs until the evacuation order is lifted, even if their residences have not sustained any damage.

Over the past several years, the insurance industry has increasingly had to assess claims from natural disasters like the one tearing through northern Alberta.

In 2011, a wildfire that ravaged Slave Lake, Alta., caused more than $700 million in damage, the IBC said. At the time, the group calculated it to be the second-costliest insured disaster in Canada after the 1998 ice storms in Ontario and Quebec that saw $1.6 billion in payouts.

The Alberta floods of 2013 were even more costly, as insurers doled out $1.8 billion, according to the IBC’s 2015 report on Canada’s property and casualty insurance industry.

Some changes to insurance offerings can come from such disasters, said Neglia.

Following the Alberta floods, for example, many insurance carriers expanded overland flooding coverage to personal property, he said. Previously, that type of coverage was typically only offered to businesses.

Sometimes, natural disasters can lead to increased premiums for customers to help insurers cover expenses after major disasters.

Intact Financial Corp. (TSX:IFC) reported it paid out about $300 million to customers in Alberta due to storms and the floods in 2013, and analysts have speculated insurance costs are likely to rise as weather-related catastrophes occur more frequently.

The leading cause of insurance claims comes from severe weather damaging properties, and payouts for catastrophic losses have hovered around $1 billion annually for the six years up to and including 2014, the IBC said.

Premiums are based on a number of factors, said Mike Van Elsberg, senior vice-president of claims in Intact’s Western division.

“Claims do affect premiums. That’s how claims are paid,” he said.

“The impact of this situation, what that will do to premiums, it’s very early on at this point.”

Military choppers joining wildfire fight

Canadian Airforce
Several CC-130J Hercules transport aircraft sit on the tarmac at CFB Trenton in Trenton, Ont., on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. The military are sending pre-operation troops to help out with wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The plane will land at CFB Cold Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

OTTAWA – The Canadian military has deployed helicopters and transport planes in response to the raging wildfire that has incinerated parts of Fort McMurray, Alta. — with more support to come as needed.

Four CH-146 Griffon helicopters are en route to perform evacuations in surroundings communities under threat from the raging blaze.

Additionally, a C-130J Hercules has been moved to the nearby military airfield in Cold Lake, with a C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift transport on standby to aid in the movement of firefighters and equipment.

Brig.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, who is in charge of the 3rd Canadian Division and the military commander for Western Canada, calls it a “dynamic” situation and planners are looking ahead at what kind of requests could come next.

He says the Alberta government is expected to formally ask other provinces and northern U.S. states for help in fighting the fire and the air force could play a role in getting crews to where they are needed.

Eyre says the Hercules is suited for landing on remote roads and could be employed getting firefighters into isolated locations.

At the moment, no ground troops — either regular or reserve forces — have been deployed, but Eyre is not ruling it out.

The army deployed up to 2,300 troops in to Alberta in June 2013 to battle severe floods in the western portion of the province, where they cleared debris and built berms to keep the water back in Canmore, High River and Red Deer.

Last year, troops were sent in to Saskatchewan to help battle wildfires.