Canada wildfire reaches turning point

  • 09/05/2016
A fire truck drives by the wildfires near Fort McMurray (Reuters)
A fire truck drives by the wildfires near Fort McMurray (Reuters)

Officials say they have reached a turning point in fighting an enormous wildfire, hoping to get a "death grip"' on the blaze that devastated Canada's oil sands town of Fort McMurray amid cooler temperatures and light rain.

Meanwhile, a massive evacuation of residents displaced by the blaze has come to an end.

Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfire told a news conference on Sunday he's "very happy" and called it great firefighting weather.

"We can really get in there and really get a handle on this fire and really get a death grip on it," said Morrison, who answered yes when asked if they've reached a turning point.

With cooler temperatures in the next three or four days, he said firefighters should be able to put out hot spots. And it has allowed them to further protect fire-ravaged Fort McMurray.

"I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress," he said.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the wildfire grew much more slowly than was feared and it is now 161,000 hectares, quite a bit smaller than had been expected on Saturday, when officials expected the fire to double in size.

She added the city is safe for first responders and said she will visit the city on Monday to assess the damage.

It rained on Sunday. The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, tweeted a picture of the rainfall and wrote: "It was only for a few minutes but the sight of rain has never been so good."

Notley retweeted the picture and wrote "Here's hoping for much more!"

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said they "may be turning a corner" but it's too early to celebrate and a lot of work remains.

Officials also completed the transport of 25,000 residents out of work camps north of the city.

Police and military oversaw a procession of thousands of vehicles on Friday and Saturday, and a mass airlift of thousands of evacuees was also employed from the oil sands camps that usually house workers.

No deaths or injuries have been reported from the fire itself. Notley, however, mentioned two evacuees who died in a traffic accident during the evacuation.

Her voiced cracked when talking about the two and noted it is Mother's Day. Fifteen-year-old Emily Ryan and her stepmother's nephew, Aaron Hodgson, died in the accident.

The images of Fort McMurray are one of devastation - scorched homes and virtually whole neighbourhoods burned to the ground.

More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada' oil sands, where the fire has torched 1600 homes and other buildings.

Gas has been turned off, the power grid is damaged and water is not drinkable. Officials said there is no timeline to return residents to the city, but the Alberta government is sending in a team on Monday to do some preliminary planning.

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.

Notley said there will be a meeting with the energy industry on Tuesday and said topics will include the state of facilities and the impact on operations.