FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – Officials said Sunday they reached a turning point in fighting an enormous wildfire, hoping to get a “death grip‘” on the blaze that devastated Canada’s oil sands town of Fort McMurray amid cooler temperatures. Meanwhile, a massive evacuation of residents displaced by the blaze came to an end.
Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfire told a news conference he’s “very happy” and called it great firefighting weather.
“We can really get in there and really get a handle on this fire and really get a death grip on it,” said Morrison, who answered yes when asked if they’ve reached a turning point.
With cooler temperatures in the next three or four days, firefighters should be able to put out hot spots. And it has allowed them to further protect fire-ravaged Fort McMurray. “I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress,” he said.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the wildfire grew much more slowly than was feared and it is now 161,000 hectares (397,831 acres). 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 said she will visit the city on Monday to assess the damage.
The fire remains west of the Saskatchewan border and Morrison said it hasn’t reached the Suncor or Syncrude oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray and that the mines north are not under threat.
It rained on Sunday. The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, tweeted a picture of the rainfall and wrote: “It was only for a few minutes but the sight of rain has never been so good.” 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’s 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 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. Notley, however, mentioned two evacuees who died in a traffic accident during the evacuation. Her voiced cracked when talking about the two and noted it is Mother’s Day. Fifteen-year-old Emily Ryan and her stepmother’s nephew, Aaron Hodgson, died in the accident.
The images of Fort McMurray are one of devastat/ion scorched homes and virtually whole neighborhoods burned to the ground.
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 on Monday 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 impact an economy already hurt by the fall in the price of oil. The Alberta oil sands have the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Its workers largely live in Fort McMurray where some neighborhoods have been destroyed.
Notley said there will be a meeting with the energy industry on Tuesday and said topics will include the state of facilities and the impact on operations.
About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation, where oil sands work camps that usually house employees were used to house evacuees. Officials then moved everyone south Friday and Saturday.
Just over 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Fort McMurray, the main highway into town is blocked off by barricades and police vehicles. More than a dozen media vehicles were parked near the barrier, along with a few volunteers who had trailers full of supplies.
One trailer had a sign on back that said “Fort Mac Bound.” It carried supplies like clothing, Gatorade and protein bars for firefighters and EMTs, said Steve Jeges, of Olds, Alberta. He said he and others accepted donations for four days in Olds before heading here.
“If our services are needed, we’re staying, he said.
Nearby, 22-year-old Sydney Robinson of Acme, Alberta stood near a trailer she had filled with clothing, water, food and about 20 kennels for animals. She came up on Thursday in hopes that she could help retrieve animals that were left behind in homes, but has not yet been able to get into Fort McMurray.
“I just want to help in any way I can,” she said.
Trailer trucks bringing three bulldozers passed through the barricade as did other authorized vehicles with supplies.
Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen asked for the patience of residents who are eager to find out if their home has been destroyed.
“We are really working hard on that, it’s a complicated process, what’s damaged, what’s left,” Allen said in a posted video. “We really will get that to you as soon as we possibly can. We care about all of you.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had no immediate plans to visit the region. “We don’t want to distract from the important work right now,” Kate Purchase, a spokeswoman for Trudeau said.
Saskatchewan Emergency Management Commissioner Duane McKay said there is heavy smoke in south west Saskatchewan, but no imminent threat of fire to any communities in the province that neighbors Alberta. McKay said the fire remains 15 to 20 kilometers from the Saskatchewan border and 60 to 70 kilometers from any communities in the province. He said whether it crosses the border over depends on weather but they don’t see it happening Sunday.
Lac La Biche, Alberta, normally a sleepy town of 2,500 about 175 kilometers (109 miles) south of Fort McMurray, was helping thousands of evacuees, providing a place to sleep, food, donated clothes and even shelter for their pets.
Jihad Moghrabi, a spokesman for Lac La Biche County, said that 4,400 evacuees have come through The Bold Center, a sports facility in town. At the center, tables were piled with clothes, towels and other items. The center was offering three free meals a day and other services, including mental health services. A kennel housed people’s pets on site.