The wildfire burning near Fort McMurray grew by about 60,000 hectares between Wednesday and Thursday, burning though 483,084 hectares, or 4,830 square kilometres. To put it in context, the fire has burned across a swath of land equal to 85 per cent of Prince Edward Island.
Thursday morning, the province said the fire had reached 505,645 hectares. The fire had crossed the Saskatchewan border, burning about 700 hectares northeast of Gordon Lake. It’s still about 30 kilometres away from La Loche, the nearest Saskatchewan community.
Syncrude, Suncor oil producing sites spared from damage from wildfires
Syncrude, Suncor oil producing sites spared from damage from wildfires
Alberta government: Fort McMurray residents returning home will not be left on their own
Fort McMurray wildfire: 700 hectares of Sask. ground now covered in flames
Fort McMurray wildfire: Favourable weather could spell good news for firefighting efforts
Emergency management commissioner Duane McKay says there’s no direct threat from the flames, in part because of the lake next to the village and because fires last year mean there’s less brush and trees to burn. McKay say smoke is a big concern in La Loche.
Alberta Wildfire’s Chad Morrison said the area burned by the Fort McMurray wildfire is bigger than the entire area burned in all of last year’s wildfire season.
However, crews did “tremendous” work Wednesday, he said, and “held the fire yesterday in all critical areas.”
Morrison said the fire continues to spread northeast, away from the oilsands facilities and into remote forested areas.
Rain expected in fire-ravaged northern B.C.
Fort McMurray wildfire: Supports for child evacuees and families
He said the fire got close to the Syncrude and Suncor facilities Wednesday but was held at the edge of the vegetation around the sites.
“Much of the oilsands facilities see no immediate threat at this time,” Morrison said.
The mandatory evacuation for 19 work camps remained in effect.
Estimated wildfire perimeter based on aerial assessment by Anonymous QRCBjQd5I7
It’s hoped that cooler temperatures and four days of rain will slow the fire’s growth.
“Similar weather is forecast for tomorrow, which represents a good opportunity for firefighters to continue to strengthen their position against the fire,” Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said.
“We had some tremendous luck today,” Bob Couture, director of the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, said Thursday. “We have overcast skies with light rain and very cool temperatures which is of great assistance on our forest fire fighting.”
“I found the news this morning to be very heartening,” Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said. “It’s wonderful to know that we’re actually making some progress.”
Blake said she’s feeling more confident that the June 1 goal for starting re-entry will be met.
“The big factor of course was the air quality people were facing. We’ve been watching the progression of the fire and we’ve really reduced the amount of potential fuel within the urban centre, so it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the fire coming back into the city, but our weather has tricked us before.”
As of Thursday morning, the air quality index was at a Level 3, but is forecast to reach the top of the 10-point scale later Thursday and Friday.
Alberta Health Services lifted the precautionary air quality advisory issued May 12 for the Edmonton Zone on Thursday.
Close to 20 this afternoon with some scattered showers. Rain continues on and off for the next 3 days. #yegwx pic.twitter长沙桑拿/JElNpnWjvG
— Mike Sobel (@mikesobel) May 19, 2016
Morrison said the fire continued to spread northeast of the oilsands facilities, but cautioned the fire was “volatile” and its behaviour unpredictable.
He said the fire came close to the Northland mill site and the Noralta Lodge, but the fire guard has helped secure the site even more. It also came close to the Syncrude and Suncor sites.
“The threat definitely has diminished in the communities around the oilsands facilities,” Morrison said, “but it’s still early.”
Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray remains restricted to industrial traffic and first responders. Given its proximity to the fire, it was closed for a short time Wednesday.
Update: #Hwy881 is now open to all traffic. There remains no public access into Fort McMurray and Anzac. #ymm #ymmfire #ABRoads (1:28pm)
— 511 Alberta (@511Alberta) May 19, 2016
Inside Fort McMurray
Crews continue to tackle hot spots within the community while continuing restoration work.
Larivee said a five-unit condo complex in Thickwood was damaged by fire and that it was the same one that suffered damage earlier this week. The cause is unknown and an investigation is ongoing.
Couture said the fire was reported at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
“We have a report of the loss of five additional condominiums,” he said. “This is actively under investigation.”
“Gas was not connected to those residences,” Larivee stressed.
Wood Buffalo officials later tweeted another residence was left with significant smoke damage.
May 19, 9 p.m. – Silin Forest Road fire update #ymmfire pic.twitter长沙桑拿/Su6TcYrfA3
— RMWB (@RMWoodBuffalo) May 20, 2016
As people start returning to the city, they’ll be asked to contact ATCO to come in and check the building and hook up the gas.
“ATCO will link up with residents once they arrive,” Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said. “We are planning for specialist cleaning services if required. Those details are all being worked out. Yes, there will likely be some special cleaning required for smoke damage,” he added.
“It’s not your normal, pristine environment. There will be challenges.”
Larivee stressed residents will have continued support, resources and information available to them.
“Fort McMurray residents…are not going to be left on their own,” she said.
Gas service has been restored to about 75 per cent of the city. Electricity has been restored to more than 90 per cent of the community.
WATCH: The fire has grown to more than 505,000 hectares, but crews say they’ve had a couple of good days, thanks to weather conditions. Fletcher Kent has an update.
Friday will be the last day the pre-loaded debit card distribution centres will be open. After that, evacuees can pick up the cards at Alberta Works offices.
The retrieval of abandoned vehicles resumed Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Alberta Emergency Alert for the region was downgraded, and tentative plans for when residents can return were unveiled. If conditions are safe, people will be allowed to start heading back to Fort McMurray in phases starting June 1.
READ MORE: Fort McMurray residents forced out by wildfire long for the comforts of home
“If conditions change, as they did just this week, the voluntary re-entry may begin later than June 1,” Premier Rachel Notley said. “We are making our decisions based on the best advice from the most informed and dedicated officials.”
The Alberta government warned only basic services would be available in fire-ravaged regions, and people were told to bring enough food, drinking water and medications for a week.
Other items to consider packing include long-sleeved shirts, long pants, rubber boots, flashlights, batteries, camera or video camera to document damage, hand soap and hand sanitizer.
READ MORE: Phased re-entry into Fort McMurray after wildfire to begin June 1
Notley said the re-entry will be done in stages over two weeks to allow for efficient traffic flow along Highway 63 — but the city will not be suitable for everyone, including people with breathing problems, late-term pregnant women and those undergoing cancer treatment, dialysis or other specialized medical treatments.
Notley outlined the dates and communities for re-entry as follows:
June 1 — Lower townsite, Anzac and First Nations communitiesJune 2 — North Fort McMurray, including Timberlea and ThickwoodJune 3 — South Fort McMurray, including Gregoire, Saline CreekJune 4 — Abasand, Beacon Hill and Saprae Creek
As long as five conditions are met, Notley said the return should be completed by June 15. The five conditions identified by the Alberta government are as follows:
The wildfire is no longer an imminent threat to the communityCritical infrastructure is restored to a basic levelEssential services are restored to a basic levelHazardous areas are securedLocal government is re-established
READ MORE: What Fort McMurray residents need to know about Canada Post delivery
Some people will not have a home to return to. Notley said those who have lost their homes will be able to inspect their properties and collect any surviving items.
WATCH: As the fire grows, so does the frustration for some Fort McMurray evacuees. They say they still have not received the money promised to them by the Red Cross. Kent Morrison explains.
— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News, and