Wind-whipped flames roaring through forests and brush parched by a
spring heat wave have engulfed nearly 250,000 acres (101,000
hectares) in western Canada's energy heartland since erupting on
The blaze, the largest of 40 wildfires burning across the province
of Alberta, has forced some 88,000 residents, the entire population
of Fort McMurray, to flee for safety, and has threatened two oil
sands production sites south of the city.
At least 10 oil sand operators have cut production due to
evacuations and other emergency measures that complicated delivery
of petroleum by rail, pipeline and highway.
With winds on Friday pushing the fire's leading edge to the
northeast, away from town and into open timber, authorities said the
blaze was expected to rapidly expand its footprint even as the
threat to populated areas waned.
Chad Morrison, an official with the Alberta government wildfire
unit, told reporters in the provincial capital Edmonton, about 270
miles (430 km) to the south, the blaze was likely to double in size
by late on Saturday, the end of its first week.
The full extent of property losses in Fort McMurray, has yet to be
determined, but authorities said some 1,600 structures were believed
to have been destroyed. One analyst estimated insurance losses could
exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion).
Earlier in the week most evacuees headed south by car on Alberta
Highway 63, the only land route out of the area, in a slow-moving
exodus that left many temporarily stranded on the roadside as they
ran out of gasoline.
But other residents who initially sought shelter in oil camps and
settlements north of the city found themselves cut off in
overcrowded conditions. They were forced on Friday to retrace their
route back through Fort McMurray on Highway 63 as flames continued
With parts of the city still in flames, evacuees in some 1,500
vehicles began making the 30-mile (50-km) trip at 4 a.m. in groups
of 50 cars.
"It reminded us of a war zone," said Marisa Heath, who spent 36
hours in her truck on the side of the highway with her husband, two
dogs, a cat and seven kittens. "Eerie. All you could see was cement
foundations of houses."
Helicopters hovered overhead watching for flames, and police set up
emergency fuel stations along the highway to keep the line of cars
moving. They headed toward safety south of Fort McMurray in towns
including Lac La Biche, 180 miles (290 km) away, and Edmonton
The convoys were halted briefly around midday due to heavy smoke,
but officials said the majority of vehicles had already passed
through town by then.
Authorities planned to airlift about 8,000 of the 25,000 evacuees
who were initially chased north of Fort McMurray.
OIL PRODUCTION CUT
About a third of Canada's oil production has been shut by the
conflagration, according to a Reuters estimate.
[to top of second column]
South of Fort McMurray, CNOOC Nexen's Long Lake oil sands facility
and Athabasca Oil's Hangingstone project were in danger of being
overrun by flames, emergency officials reported. Both facilities
have been evacuated.
Morrison said fire was "at the gates" of the Long Lake installation,
but shifting winds would likely spare the facility. He added that
many oil facilities in the region had private firefighting forces in
BP Plc's Canadian unit has declared a force majeure resulting in the
reduction of available Western Canadian Select crude, among other
Canadian grades, according to two trading sources familiar with the
There have been no known casualties from the fire itself, but
fatalities were reported earlier this week in at least one car crash
among the evacuees.
As of Friday, more than 1,200 firefighters were arrayed against
blazes across Alberta, backed by more than 100 helicopters and over
two dozen airplane tankers equipped to drop water and fire-retardant
chemicals on the flames.
But the sheer magnitude and intensity of the Fort McMurray fire
mostly defied all efforts to contain it.
Cecil Dickason, a Fort McMurray resident who was part of the convoy,
said the battered city looked "awful." Others described the city as
dark and smoke-filled, pockmarked with charred and abandoned
vehicles and roadside spot fires.
Entire neighborhoods were reduced to ruins, but most evacuees fled
without knowing the fate of their own homes. The majority got away
with few possessions, some forced to leave pets behind.
In a press briefing on Friday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said
damage to Fort McMurray was extensive.
"The city of Fort McMurray is not safe to return to, and this will
be true for a significant period of time," she said, adding that
officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would secure and
protect what was left of the town.
The Alberta government has approved emergency funding for wildfire
evacuees and will be giving out C$1,250 ($966) per adult and C$500
($387) per dependent.
(Additional reporting by Ethan Lou, Allison Martell in Toronto, Nia
Williams in Calgary, Catherine Ngai, David Gaffen in New York, David
Ljunngren, Leah Schnurr in Ottawa; Writing by Amran Abocar and Steve
Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Diane Craft)
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