Monday 5 December 2016

Firefighters reach 'turning point' in battle against huge Canada blaze

Rachel La Corte

Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30

Flames erupt as a driver flees near Fort McMurray. Photo: Reuters
Flames erupt as a driver flees near Fort McMurray. Photo: Reuters

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

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Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfire said last night he was "very happy" and called it great firefighting weather after some rain fell and cooler temperatures were on the way.

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

With the weather expected to stay colder over the next three or four days, firefighters should be able to put out hot spots. It has also allowed them to further protect fire-ravaged Fort McMurray. "I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress," Mr Morrison said.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the wildfire grew much more slowly than was feared and it is now 161,000 hectares. She said the blaze is 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 she plans to visit the city today to assess the damage. The fire remains west of the Saskatchewan border and Mr Morrison said it hadn't reached the Suncor or Syncrude oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray and that the mines to the north were not under threat.

The rural municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, tweeted a picture of yesterday's rainfall and wrote: "It was only for a few minutes but the sight of rain has never been so good." Mr 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 was 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. Ms Notley, however, mentioned two evacuees who died in a traffic accident during the evacuation.

Emily Ryan (15) 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.

Evacuation

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 said there is no timeline to return residents to the city, but the Alberta government is sending in a team today 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 affect an economy already hurt by the fall in the price of oil.

Irish Independent

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