LAC LA BICHE, Alberta—The images are ones of devastation—scorched homes, virtually whole neighborhoods burned to the ground. It rained a little Sunday morning in Fort McMurray, but Canadian officials say they expect to fight the massive wildfire that has destroyed large parts of Alberta’s oil sands town for months.
There’s fear the growing wildfire could double in size and reach a major oil sands mine and even cross into the neighboring province of Saskatchewan.
The Alberta government said the massive blaze in the province will cover more than 200,000 hectares (495,000 acres) by Sunday and continue to grow because of high temperatures, dry conditions and high winds. Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfire said it’s not uncommon to fight such an inferno in forested areas for months.
Morrison said the fire was burning away from communities this weekend. He expected cooler temperatures along with the rain Sunday, but significant rainfall is needed to put out the flames.
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.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley retweeted the picture and wrote “Here’s hoping for much more!”
Officials had hoped to complete the mass evacuation of work camps north of Fort McMurray on Saturday. Thousands of displaced residents got a drive-by view of some of the burned-out neighborhoods as convoys continued. No deaths or injuries have been reported since the fire started last Sunday.
Notley said about 12,000 evacuees have been airlifted from oil sands mine air fields over the past two days, and about 7,000 have left in highway convoys escorted by police. She said the goal was to complete the evacuation from northern work camps by Sunday.
The fire could reach the edges of the Suncor oil sands facility, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of Fort McMurray. Non-essential staff have been evacuating and efforts to protect the site were underway.
Notley, however, said that the facility was highly resilient to forest fires. Oil sands mines are cleared and have no vegetation.
Morrison said the fire wasn’t expected to reach the oil sands mines north of Suncor.
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.
Police said many parts of smoke-filled Fort McMurray are burnt and visibility is low. Officers wore masks as they checked homes to make sure everyone was out.
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 has begun preliminary planning, though it stresses fighting the fire is still the first priority.
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 are moving everyone south where it is safer. 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.
Syncrude, a major oil sands mining company, also shut down operations and evacuated. The company said in a statement that while there is no imminent threat from fire, smoke has reached its Mildred Lake site.
The 200,000 hectares (494,211 acres) size estimate for the fire includes burned areas and those areas still in flames. The fire started last Sunday and has destroyed about than 2,000 square kilometers (772 miles) of northern Alberta forest.
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.
Nicole Cormier, a photographer from Fort McMurray, is staying with family in Lac La Biche but brings neighbors that she evacuated with her to the center every day for services.
She showed cellphone photos she shot from her backyard of the advancing fire, and photos of flames on the side of the road while they were evacuating.
Cormier said she checks the security doorbell camera on her house several times a day just to see if it’s standing. For now, it is.
“It’s weird, you feel a big sigh of relief but you feel totally guilty because of what others have lost,” she said.