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Canadian wildfires ‘could burn for months', officials fear

A wildfire burns south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, near Highway 63. Picture by Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press/Associated Press
Rachel La Corte and Rob Gillies

CANADIAN officials say they expect to fight the massive wildfire that has destroyed large parts of Alberta’s oil sands city of Fort McMurray for months.

And there is fear that the growing wildfire could double in size, reach a major oil sands mine – and even the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.

The Alberta government said the massive blaze in the province would cover more than 494,211 acres by Saturday and continue to grow because of high temperatures, dry conditions and high winds.

Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfires said it was not uncommon to fight such an inferno in forested areas for months.

“In no way is this fire under control,” Alberta premier Rachel Notley said.

Officials had hoped to complete the mass evacuation of work camps north of Fort McMurray on Saturday.

Thousands of displaced residents got a drive-by view of some of the burned-out neighbourhoods as convoys continued. No deaths or injuries have been reported since the fire started on May 1.

Ms Notley said about 12,000 evacuees have been airlifted from oil sands mine air fields over the past two days, and about 7,000 left in highway convoys escorted by police.

She said the goal was to complete the evacuation from northern work camps by Sunday.

The fire could reach the edges of the Suncor oil sands facility, about 15 miles north of Fort McMurray. Non-essential staff have been evacuating and efforts to protect the site were under way.

Ms Notley, however, said that the plant was highly resilient to forest fires. Oil sands mines are cleared and have no vegetation.

Mr Morrison said the fire was not expected to reach the oil sands mines north of Suncor.

The fire and mass evacuation has forced a quarter or more of Canada’s oil output offline and was expected to impact an economy already hurt by the fall in the price of oil.

The Alberta oil sands have the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Its workers largely live in Fort McMurray where some neighbourhoods have been destroyed.

Police said many parts of smoke-filled Fort McMurray are burnt and visibility is low. Officers wore masks as they checked homes to make sure everyone was out.

More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’ oil sands, where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings. Gas has been turned off, the power grid is damaged and water is not drinkable.

Officials say there is no timeline to return residents to the city, but the Alberta government has begun preliminary planning, though it stresses fighting the fire is still the first priority.

About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after last Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation, where oil sands work camps that usually house employees were used to shelter evacuees. Officials are moving everyone south where it is safer.

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