Fort McMurray Fire: Experts Say The Oilsands Are Resilient To Wildfires

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CALGARY — Wildfires that ravaged some neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray and forced 80,000 to flee the city two weeks ago are now chewing through the wilderness further north, where major oilsands projects are located. A 665-unit work lodge has burned down and two more are under threat. But experts and officials say they aren't expecting serious harm to the oil-producing facilities themselves. Here's why:

There's a built-in buffer zone:

Oilsands projects — whether they involve scooping the ore out of a mine or melting it underground with steam — are built in such a way that there's a lot of empty space between facilities and forest. Unlike in residential neighbourhoods where there are a lot of trees and wooden buildings, there's little in the way of fuel at the industrial sites to feed the ravenous flames.

"There's an inherent built-in safety space around all these facilities,'' said Robert Bedin, with RS Energy Group in Calgary.

"Lots of people think that this whole lake, huge lake, is going to catch fire — no. The answer is no.''

Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison told reporters that because vegetation has been cleared away and the ground is covered in gravel, "we feel fairly confident that the sites themselves will be OK.''

fort mcmurray oilsands
Motorists travel south on Alberta Highway 63 as the setting sun illuminates a huge plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the distance rising over Fort McMurray. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Bitumen doesn't catch fire easily:

Morrison battled wildfires in oilsands country in 2011. Burning bitumen, the tarry product extracted at the sites, wasn't an issue then and it's not expected to be one this time either, he said.

Bitumen has more in common with crumbly asphalt than highly combustible gasoline, said Bedin.

"There's an inherent built-in safety space around all these facilities.''

"It's not volatile. It's pretty benign. So in most scenarios I think we're talking about, this stuff is not likely to ignite,'' said Bedin.

Fire needs oxygen to grow, and there's no way for it to get into the oil-soaked sand and clay, said Raj Mehta, a professor of oil and gas engineering at the University of Calgary. "It will burn momentarily, but after that it will die.''

tailings pond fort mcmurray
A tailings pond stands near the Syncrude Canada Ltd. upgrader plant at the company's mine near Fort McMurray. (Photo: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty)

Ditto, tailings ponds:

Tailings ponds hold the waste product that's left over from the oilsands extraction process — and they're huge. The ponds contain used water, sand, clay and residual bitumen. But the amount of bitumen is too small to pose a danger, Mehta said.

"I think that's the biggest myth people worry about,'' he said. "Lots of people think that this whole lake, huge lake, is going to catch fire — no. The answer is no.''

The stuff that could catch fire or explode is mostly underground:

Oilsands projects rely heavily on natural gas to generate power for their plants and heat up the steam that's used to liquefy the bitumen in some projects.

They also need diluent, a very light petroleum product, to make the tarry oilsands crude thin enough to flow through pipelines. Both are products one would want to keep as far away as possible from the encroaching flames.

Fortunately, the pipes that carry those substances are buried underground, Mehta said.

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