Fort McMurray fire grows, three times size of Edmonton
Sunday, May 8, 2016, 9:54 AM - The Fort McMurray fire continues to ravage communities and officials estimate it has now covered over 200,000 hectares.
To put things into perspective, the blaze is three times the size of Edmonton. In a typical fire season, about 300 hectares burn in wildfires by early May in Alberta.
Although there are cooler temperatures in the area with a cold frontal passage, strong westerly winds are pushing smoke into parts of Saskatchewan and there are no signs of any steady precipitation in the forecast. There are reports that the smoke has reached as far south as Atlantic, Georgia.
"Winds have spread smoke from wildfires in northeast Alberta into portions of northeastern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan," Environment Canada reports. "Smoke is producing poor air quality and reduced visibilities in some areas especially those closer to the fires near the Alberta border. Smoke near the ground can cause high health risk conditions. Further away from the fires, smoke is mainly aloft and only causing moderate air quality issues."
Over 500 firefighters, 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers are battling the blaze. The fire has burned more than 1,600 structures, and many of the 88,000 residents who fled the city this past week have no idea when they can return.
"In no way is this fire under control," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said at a news conference on Saturday, citing continued high temperatures and strong winds as ongoing challenges.
Notley said Fort McMurray's power grid is in bad shape, water is not drinkable, no stores are open and much hazardous material remains to be cleared-- all significant barriers to the evacuees' return.
In total, there are 43 fires burning in Alberta, with seven of those out of control.
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Fire could take 'months' to extinguish
Although officials say they are working on plans for the evacuees' eventual return to the city and the fire was moving away from the city, Alberta Wildfire official Chad Morrison told a Saturday news conference the fire itself would take a long time to extinguish.
"Unless we have a significant rain event of 100 millimetres of rain, we expect to be out fighting the fire in the forested area for months to come," Morrison said, according to the Toronto Star.
Notley said around 32,000 households have registered with the Red Cross, and the premier urged other evacuees who have not yet registered to do so, even if they have already registered with an evacuation centre.
One silver lining of the crisis has been the sheer number of charitable donations. The Canadian Red Cross says it has raised over $44 million for relief efforts so far.
WATCH: Emotional evacuee speaks with The Weather Network's Deb Matejicka
Another evacuation order
On Thursday, RCMP going door-to-door in the near-empty city found a family of five and a man and his dog still in their homes, despite an evacuation order. All were taken to safety.
"If you aren't a police officer, a firefighter or otherwise have a first-responder role in the emergency, you should not be in Fort McMurray,"Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said in a press conference.
Though no deaths have been reported as a direct result of the fires, two people were killed in a collision during the initial exodus from Fort McMurray Wednesday.
The victims, 15-year-old Emily Ryan and 19-year-old Aaron Hodgson, were driving in an SUV on Highway 881 when it collided with a tractor-trailer, according to CBC. Both died at the scene, and the crash ignited a fire that closed the highway.
RCMP have confirmed two people died in fiery crash on Highway 881 & RR 94. We have not heard if the fire is out. pic.twitter.com/vK7xBSgYsP— Erin Chalmers (@ChalmersErin) May 4, 2016
When it was apparent the fires would reach the city, the initial evacuation sent residents fleeing both north and south.
Many of those who went north were stranded in oilsands work camps for days, but the RCMP has since been organizing a series of convoys to escort those evacuees south on Highway 63 to evacuation centres in Calgary and Edmonton.
More than 14,000 people have been relocated over the past two days, with many flown to safety.
Fire nearing oilsands sites
Meanwhile, the flames have threatened several oilsands facilities in the Fort McMurray area.
The flames were expected to reach the Suncor site later Saturday, but Alberta Wildfire official Chad Morrison told CBC that the threat to that and other facilities is less, as many are surrounded by fire breaks and have their own fire crews.
"These sites are extremely resilient to forest fires," Morrison told CBC.
Syncrude Canada, meanwhile, said Saturday that it would shut down and evacuate its Aurora and Mildred Lake sites.
"While there is no immediate threat from fire, we anticipate smoke could start to encroach on our Mildred Lake site this morning," Syncrude spokesperson Leithan Slade told CBC.
LIVE ON LOCATION: Storm Hunter Mark Robinson and reporter Deb Matejicka are live on location covering the intensifying scene near Fort McMurray, Alta. Tune in to TV and check online and mobile often for live reports and updates.
Grim weather outlook ahead
Record hot temperatures and a lack of rain this week laid the groundwork for the massive fire, and ongoing hot and dry conditions have made for a dangerous combination.
Winds could gust up to 60 km/h around the region, which could enhance fire behaviour. The rain looks to stay north of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas through Sunday evening. While there is a chance of a passing shower, there is no sign of prolonged rain.
Locally, the fire is so enormous it is actually creating its own weather.
"Pyrocumulous clouds are generated by intense heat, common in volcanic eruptions and intense wildfires," says The Weather Network's Chris Murphy. "And they bring with them the worst combinations during fires - dry lightning and very unpredictable wind gusts - and we have seen both since the fire has grown exponentially through the week."
The cost of the fire
While still too early to tell, it is anticipated that the wildfire may end up being Canada's costliest natural disaster, according to one analyst with the Bank of Montreal.
Tom MacKinnon told Bloomberg News that the cost to insurers if "almost all" of the city's homes, businesses and vehicles are destroyed would surpass $9 billion. However, McKinnon says the likely damage toll would probably be in the range of one quarter to one half -- meaning total losses of up to $4.7 billion.
The efforts of fire crews have successfully kept the fires away from Fort McMurray's airport, but some neighbourhoods in the city have suffered up to 90 per cent damage. The estimated 1,600 destroyed structures are roughly four times as many as were lost in the Slave Lake fire of 2011.
Aon Plc lists the Alberta floods of 2013 as the costliest disaster in Canadian history, with $1.7 billion in losses, according to Bloomberg.
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