Canada wildfire advance ‘slows’ as evacuations finish


image_650_365CANADA – A huge wildfire ravaging the Canadian province of Alberta has grown more slowly than feared, officials say.

Firefighters have held key areas and the blaze now covers about 621 sq miles (1,610 sq km) – less than the 700 sq miles estimated on Saturday. But it could be months before the fire is fully brought under control. More than 100,000 residents of Fort McMurray have fled the blaze. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said has spoken of “very difficult conditions”.

Chad Morrison from Alberta wildfire told the news conference he had some “good news”. “With a little help from mother nature and a bit of a break in the weather, and credit to the all the hard work of all the firefighters we were able to hold most of the line in Fort McMurray,” he said. The wildfire is now said to be about 30-40 km (18-24 mi) from the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, but is yet to spill over, despite an earlier report.

Air quality warnings have been issued for Saskatchewan and Northwest Territories, with locals advised to close windows and doors due to smoke. Its advance has been fuelled by hot weather and tinder-dry terrain and officials warned only significant rainfall would halt its advance.

The fire is expected to be the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, with insurance costs alone already running into billions of dollars. The blaze ruined entire neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, with residents warned it could be some time before they can return.

Officials say the power grid is damaged and the water undrinkable. No deaths or injuries have been reported from the fire, but two people died in traffic accidents during the evacuation.

Some 1,600 homes and other buildings have been lost, a figure likely to rise. In the rush to leave, some Fort McMurray residents were forced to flee without their pets and a website has been set up so volunteers can reach stranded animals.

“We’re hearing about lots of dogs and cats, but also one guy has 32 geckos that need rescue,” Shannon Orell-Bast told the Globe and Mail. More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze with helicopters, air tankers and other heavy equipment.

Nick Waddington from the Fort McMurray Fire Department said one crew member saw his house burn down before going on to work an 18-hour shift. Fort McMurray is in the heart of Canada’s oil sands country, and the region has the world’s third-largest reserves of oil. Workers at major oil companies have also been evacuated.

As much as a quarter of the country’s oil production has been halted by the fire, raising concerns about the effect on the Canadian economy. There are warnings the blaze could burn to the edge of a facility run by Suncor Energy but officials said the risk of damage was low.