FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta Canadian officials who got their first glimpse on Monday of the oil sands boomtown of Fort McMurray since a wildfire erupted said they were encouraged by how much of it escaped destruction, estimating almost 90 percent of its buildings were saved.
But a tour of the fire-ravaged city also revealed scenes of utter devastation, with blocks of homes reduced to blackened foundations, front steps and metal barbecues.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said 2,400 structures had burnt within the city while almost 25,000 were saved.
The fire that has ravaged some 204,000 hectares (504,000 acres) of Alberta moved far enough away from the evacuated town of 88,000 people to allow an official delegation led by the Notley to visit.
"We were really encouraged today to see the extent of residential communities that were saved," Notley said. "That of course doesn't mean there aren't going to be some really heartbreaking images for some people to see when they come back."
Reporters on the tour viewed the charred rubble of the community's Beacon Hill neighbourhood, where some 80 percent of the homes had been burnt to the ground and the wreckage of blackened and melted cars remained on roads.
Notley said it was not safe for residents to enter the city unescorted, with parts still smoldering and large areas without power, water and gas. She said repair crews will have weeks of work ahead of them to make the city safe.
Fire Chief Darby Allen told reporters that 85 percent of the buildings in Fort McMurray had survived the blaze, offering a slightly lower estimate than Notley. All schools except one that had been under construction were intact. Notley credited the efforts of firefighters who battled the out-of-control blaze for days.
The assessment by officials came a few hours after insurance experts revised sharply downward their estimates of the cost of damage from the blaze, which began on May 1.
Canada's largest property and casualty insurer Intact Financial Corp (IFC.TO) expects to suffer losses ranging from C$130 million to C$160 million ($100 million-$123 million) from the wildfire. Intact used satellite imagery and geocoding technology to see if buildings were a total loss or partially destroyed.
Analysts said Intact's forecast implied overall industry losses of between C$1 billion C$1.1 billion, much less than the earlier forecast of C$9 billion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed a multi-year commitment by the national government to rebuild Fort McMurray.
"We will support and invest in rebuilding Fort McMurray in a broad range of ways in the coming days, weeks, months and yes, years," he told reporters in Ottawa, but gave no details.
Fire officials said the blaze was still large, growing and dangerous. But they noted cooler weather had slowed the fire's spread and would help in the coming days. High temperatures and winds accelerated the blaze last week.
RAIN NEEDED TO TAME 'BEAST'
Temperatures cooled on Monday, with a forecast high of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), down from Sunday's high of 63 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius).
The cool weather was expected to linger through Thursday, according to Environment Canada. Still, much of the province of Alberta in western Canada is tinder-box dry after a mild winter and warm spring.
"This beast is so big, we need rain to fix it," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters on Monday.
Government weather forecasts show the first possibility of rain on Wednesday with a 30 percent chance.
Notley said she expected to be able to provide a schedule within two weeks for the return of residents. Thousands of evacuees are camped in nearby towns.
Fort McMurray is the center of Canada's oil sands region.About half of its crude output, or 1 million barrels per day, has been taken offline, according to a Reuters estimate.
Statoil ASA (STL.OL) said it will suspend all production at its Leismer oil sands project in northern Alberta until midstream terminals needed to transport crude oil via pipeline reopen.
Its move followed shutdowns of Nexen Energy's Long Lake facility, Suncor Energy's (SU.TO) base plant operations, the Syncrude project and Conoco Phillips' Surmont project (COP.N).
Nearly all of Fort McMurray's residents escaped the firesafely, although two teenagers died in a car crash duringthe evacuation.
($1 = 1.2997 Canadian dollars)
(With additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Nia Williams in Calgary and Matt Schuffman, Ethan Lou and Allison Martell in Toronto; Writing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Cynthia Osterman)
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Published Date: May 10, 2016 05:00 am | Updated Date: May 10, 2016 05:00 am