Canadian wildfire burns into seventh day

  • 09/05/2016
The remains of charred vehicles in a heavily damaged neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, Alberta (Getty)
The remains of charred vehicles in a heavily damaged neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, Alberta (Getty)

By Liz Hampton and Rod Nickel

A wildfire ripping through Canada's oil sands region looks set to grow rapidly despite cooler weather and light rain but move away from heavily populated areas, a fire official says.

The fire, which is entering its second week after starting near the town of Fort McMurray in northeast Alberta, spread so quickly that the town's 88,000 inhabitants barely had time to leave.

The front of the fire was moving southeast, away from Fort McMurray toward the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, said wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather.

While there were some communities near the fire, they were not in its path, he said.

Winds of up to 60km/h were fanning the flames, but there was a chance of rain and cooler temperatures later in the day.

An Alberta government statement issued on Saturday night (local time) said the fire had consumed 200,000 hectares - an area the size of Mexico City - and would continue to grow.

Fort McMurray is the centre of Canada's oil sands region.

About half of the crude output from the sands, or one million barrels per day, had been taken offline as of Friday, according to a Reuters estimate.

The inferno looks set to become the costliest natural disaster in Canada's history. One analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion (NZ$10.2 billion).

Officials have said that, even though the fire has largely pushed through Fort McMurray, the town is still too dangerous to enter.

Thousands of evacuees are camped out in nearby towns but stand little chance of returning soon, even if their homes are intact. The city's gas has been turned off, its power grid is damaged, and the water is undrinkable.

Provincial officials said displaced people would be better off driving to cities such as Calgary, 655km to the south, where health and social services were better.

The provincial government has promised evacuees pre-paid debit cards to cover immediate costs, with C$1250 (NZ$1416) per adult and C$500 per dependent, expected to cost about C$100 million.

After the scare of her life escaping the fire on Tuesday, housekeeping supervisor Susie Demelo got some welcome good news on Saturday. New satellite images showed the house she rents in Fort McMurray was still standing.

Demelo and her partner had no insurance on their belongings.

"I'm very blessed and grateful," she said. "And nobody has died in the fire."

Through Friday and Saturday, police escorted thousands of evacuees who had been forced to flee north from Fort McMurray back through the burning town, to allow them to head south to Alberta's major cities.

More than 500 firefighters were in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters, 14 air tankers and 88 other pieces of equipment, officials said.

One exhausted fireman told CBC television that members of his team were working up to 40 hours at a stretch without sleep.