GREGOIRE LAKE, Alberta A raging Canadian wildfire grew explosively on Saturday as hot, dry winds pushed the blaze across the energy heartland of Alberta and smoke forced the shutdown of a major oil sands project.
The fire that has already prompted the evacuation of 88,000 people from the city of Fort McMurray was on its way to doubling in size on Saturday, the seventh day of what is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Canada's history.
With temperatures on Saturday expected to rise as high as 28 Celsius (82 Fahrenheit), the weather was hindering efforts to fight the wildfire. Officials said it was still burning out of control and expected to keep pushing to the northeast.
"In these conditions officials tell us the fire may double in size in the forested areas today. As well, they may actually reach the Saskatchewan border. In no way is this fire under control," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told a media briefing.
She said it was clear Fort McMurray residents would not be able to return anytime soon, noting the city's gas has been turned off, its power grid was damaged and the water is not drinkable.
The fire had scorched at least 156,000 hectares (385,000 acres) by Saturday morning, the Alberta government said.
The full extent of property losses in Fort McMurray has yet to be determined, but one analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion).
More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers, the Alberta government said.
Within Fort McMurray, visibility is often less than 30 feet (9 meters) due to the smoke, making it still very dangerous to circulate in the city, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector Kevin Kunetzki told reporters at a highway checkpoint.
Syncrude oil sands project said Saturday it will shut down its northern Alberta operation and remove all personnel from the site due to smoke. There was no imminent threat from the fire.
Notley said it appeared the fire could burn to the edge of a project operated by Suncor Energy Inc , but noted the site was highly resilient to fire damage.
An official said CNOOC Nexen's Long Lake oil sands facility appeared to have escaped damage, but was still obscured by smoke.
At least 10 oil sand operators have cut production due to evacuations and other emergency measures that complicated delivery of petroleum by rail, pipeline and highway. [CRU/CA]
About half of Canada's oil sands production capacity, or one million barrels per day (bpd), had been taken offline by the conflagration as of Friday, according to a Reuters estimate.
Police escorted another convoy of evacuees out of the oil sands region north of Fort McMurray, taking them on a harrowing journey through burned out parts of the city and billowing smoke. Some 1,600 structures are believed to have been lost.
Earlier in the week most evacuees headed south by car on Alberta Highway 63, the only land route out of the area, in a slow-moving exodus that left many temporarily stranded on the roadside as they ran out of gasoline.
But about 25,000 residents who initially sought shelter in oil camps and settlements north of the city found themselves cut off in overcrowded conditions. They were forced on Friday and Saturday to retrace their route back through Fort McMurray on Highway 63.
Notley said in the past two days about 12,000 of those evacuees had been airlifted out, and in the past 24 hours 7,000 had traveled south by road. She said the goal was to have all the evacuees south by the end of Saturday.
Entire neighborhoods were reduced to ruins, but most evacuees fled without knowing the fate of their own homes. The majority got away with few possessions, some forced to leave pets behind.
Stephane Dumais, thumbing through his insurance documents at an evacuation center at Lac La Biche, said he has thought about moving away. But the idea does not sit well with the heavy equipment operator for a logging company.
"To me that's like giving up on my city," he said. "As long as it takes to rebuild it, let's work together. It's not going to be the same as it used to be."
(Additional reporting by Ethan Lou in Toronto,; Writing by Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)
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Updated Date: May 08, 2016 08:00 AM